The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

I have to admit, I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy the Last Smile - I'm not a fan of detective stories, don't like Noir since we're at it. A lot of my friends were excited about this debut, so I decided to give it a try.

--- Possible mild spoilers ahead ---

The blurb reads:
"Welcome to Sunder City. The magic is gone but the monsters remain.

I'm Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential.
3. I don't work for humans.

It's nothing personal—I'm human myself. But after what happened, to the magic, it's not the humans who need my help."

Sunder City is a grim place. I entered a dilapidated working-class town, which used to run on magic. With its lifeline suddenly cut off during an event known as Coda, every magical creature lost an irreplaceable part of themselves. Elves aged centuries in a matter of seconds, Dragons fell from the sky when they lost their ability to fly, magic-fuelled dwarven forges went cold.
In this shadow-of-its-former-self of a city, Fetch Phillips is trying to silence his conscience with odd jobs, cheap alcohol, and a dose of painkillers.

Luke Arnold is not the first author to explore the subject of a world where magic died. His traversal has, however, a distinct voice. He takes familiar fantasy tropes and builds on them, focusing on personal impact Coda had on the residents, which feel like a solemn hug, only to slit a shiv under your ribs.
The author built a well thought through and coherent picture of what happens with people are facing a sudden and inevitable shift in the way their world works. In 2020, it hits a little too close to home than I'd like to admit.

Fetch, as a protagonist, is not up everyone's alley. He makes a lot of questionable decisions; his actions seem reactive and directionless; he's snarky and unpleasant. I'm used to protagonists that excel at something or have a unique ability they can learn through and develop. The quality that Fetch has in abundance is stubbornness.
He's not the smartest crayon in the shed; his martial prowess and physical strength are somewhat lacking; wouldn't get an award for Best Detective Skills. And- like this crayon in the shed - he's very out of place, but I will return to Fetch's inadequacy in a moment.

The Last Smile's other characters are varied and distinctive. Their stories are personal, and each of them is purposely crafted, which is especially visible in the audiobook version narrated by the author. Thanks to Luke's acting talent, their voices are unique and add another layer of depth to the worldbuilding.

The book doesn't feel like a debut. The writing is mature, although the pace may feel a bit slow at times, and gives a hint of the Last Smile being on the author's mind for a long time. Despite fewer action sequences that fantasy genre often offers, I was not disappointed. However, this, as well as the narrative itself, maybe a matter of personal taste.
The similes and metaphors used in the book are sometimes surprising and may seem odd:
"[...]thegrounds were smeared with a thick coat of nostalgia; the unforgettable aroma of grass-stain, snotty sleeves, fear, confusion, and week-old peanut butter sandwiches."
"The candlestick phone rattled its bells like a beggar asking for change."

As they are used sparingly - I found them enriching my experience. The narrative has a nice flow, a melody, and a unique charm, which are complementing the atmosphere of the novel.

Speaking of the mood of the story, I'd like to return to Fetch for a moment and look a bit deeper into his inadequacy I mentioned earlier (mild spoilers ahead).
There is nothing special about him - pretty much every encountered character can better Fetch in one way or another: strength, agility, knowledge, experience, connections, wealth - you name it. When he joined Opus, it was not because of his abilities - he was a token human amongst the magic folk. Joining the Humanitarian Army was driven by anger, and his need for appreciation was the ultimate downfall for many when Coda irreversibly changed the known world in moments.
He carries guilt and tries to do something - anything - good amongst the ruins he helped to create.
In a world facing rapid changes caused by COVID-19, haven't we all felt that way sometimes? Inadequate, lacking, helpless, watching as what we knew and took for granted is changing in front of our eyes.

Sunder City sticks to you. It feels like a thick layer of grease on your skin, and even when it's washed off, the sensation of its presence is still there.
Earlier this year I came closer to Fetch than I'm willing to admit, counting weeks by the empty bottles in the kitchen, thinking that there must be something, anything, that I could do. It may not be easy, or pretty, but let's take it one day at a time, and maybe trolls will move again.

Until then, I will hold onto my cup of coffee.



The Last Smile in Sunder City on Goodreads

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