Perhaps it’s unfair that I’m reviewing The Last Smile of Sunder City only days after finishing Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. A Hugo award winning series is always going to be an unreachable pinnacle, especially by a debut author, and I’m probably doing an unrealistic comparison to expect Sunder City to feed the depth of my expectations after spending three books in Jemisin’s incredible craft. But I did expect more from Sunder City. This isn’t to say Arnold is a bad writer; he’s not. He’s a very good writer, even if sometimes the story’s a little over-written. There’s a cluttered feel to the sentences, especially in the beginning of the book. Six descriptors are used where we probably only need one. And this feels like a very nit-picky thing to harp on when the characters and environment were well done, but it kept pulling me out of the story. It was also a little difficult to place myself in whatever time-period this city resides in. There’s references to industry, and details that make it seem perhaps steampunkey, or post-industrial, but then they use pay-phones and wear T-shirts, and have modern high-rises, so it was unclear ‘where’ in time this magical place lives.
That all being said, Arnold does create a very interesting world; a place where magic once was, and now magic is gone. I’ve never encountered a post-apocalyptic magic world before, and Arnold deftly makes it real. He answers the questions of what happens to elves and sprites and dwarves and ogres when the magic poofs away. The short answer? They die. Horrifically. And the perpetrators of this disaster, are of course, the humans. Our narrator and drunk man-for-hire, Fetch, is given an impossible task of finding an aged vampire amidst the desolate destruction of this once magical city. Like every man for hire, Fetch is irreverent, self-deprecating, depressed, and lonely, looking back on his past with regret as he unfolds the destruction his own kind has caused.
While we get most of Fetch’s backstory as just that, there was always a part of me that felt like the backstory should have just been the story. The most interesting part of the tale is Fetch’s relationship with the head of the Opus, and even though it’s poignant and the hindsight Fetch has allows us to accurately understand how it all went down, I wanted more from that storyline. I really wanted to feel what Fetch was feeling, in real time, so that when it all goes to crap, the death knell of it would have been so much more striking.
I will probably read the second book when it comes out, just because I liked the world it all happens in, but I think this book had a lot of untapped potential.