Book review: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Coming up with an approach to fantasy storytelling that is so compellingly fresh that you spend much of a story excited about where it’s all going to lead is a very rare thing indeed, especially given the explosion in popularity of the genre over recent years.

Actor (Black Sails, Never Tear Us Apart), writer, director and novelist Luke Arnold is the purveyor of one such vibrantly original new story with his debut novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City bringing a welcome new take on many tropes and stalwarts of the fantasy genre.

That’s the thing of course – many of the elements in this beguilingly page-turning tale of one lost man down on his luck who stumbles across a mystery that might be the salvation to not only his inner angst but the remaking of the broken world in which he lives, have been around the heavily dwarf and elf-populated block before.

But Arnold finds a way to breathe new life into them while fashioning a story is as emotionally resonant as it is fantastical, a brilliantly inviting mix of noir fiction and Tolkien-esque fantasy storytelling that has a tremendous amount of humanity at the heart of its magical soul.

Or rather, its once-magical soul.

“It’s one strange step into madness to know that Elves and Angels exist, but it’s quite another to sleep with one. Knowing that my first Sunder pay-check could buy my way into bed with a Banshee or a Wendigo, my virgin heart could barely handle it. Each piece of a dream stood bare, in red windows, beckoning me in.” (PP. 114-115)

For The Last Smile in Sunder City is the sorry tale of what happens when greed and jealousy drive humanity to rob the magical creatures with which it shares the world, and in particular the continent of Archetellos in which the blighted urban landscape of Sunder City sits, of the magic which powers them in deeply fundamental ways.

In particular how this act of cruelly negligent, horrendously destructive vandalism of the gloriously-good established order, affects gumshoe, or Man For Hire as he styles himself, Fetch Phillips, the man responsible for killing off the magic in Archtellos and in the process, reducing many mystically wonderful beings to mortally-blighted creatures stuck in the grim reality of finite existence and abilities.

Truth be told, as Arnold admits in his history of Sunder City which is woven in, like all the exposition, in a way that amplifies and adds to the story rather than lessening it and slowing it down, the place Fetch now calls home has never really been the height of enlightened urban living.

But like everywhere else in a once-transcendent world, Sunder City and its multitudinous inhabitants, human and non-human alike, have seen far, far, FAR better days.

Whether you are a wizard or a witch, an Elf or a Dwarf, a Wendigo, Werewolf, Vampire, Banshee, Nymph or Giant, or one of the many races that once made Archtellos a place of mystical wonder, the life you have now is a mere shadow of the one you once enjoyed, a trauma so collectively profound that it has changed the very nature of life in Sunder City.

It has also changed Fetch Phillips’ life in ways innumerable with the refugee from the closed-off cult-like human-only city of Weatherly, having to grapple with being the one who made all the degradation and loss happen.

(image courtesy Goodreads)

No wonder he is awash in alcohol and life-destructive regret; the only way he can see to make even a tokenistic attempt to right the great wrongs he has wrought is by working with anyone who is not human to help them achieve some form of justice in a world sorely lacking in it (along with hope but that may have its own solution).

As Fetch sets out, rather bull-in-a-china-shop-ish to solve the case of a missing vampire and his banshee student – no one has their old abilities but they still tend to sick within their species groupings – his driving mission, apart from getting frequent-imbibed alcoholic drinks into him, is to find some measure of peace, of restitution for people who will live fulfill their mystical birthright ever again.

If that all sounds, off-puttingly oppressive it is anything but.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is instead an emotionally resonant mix of the morality tale at the heart of tales as diverse as graphic novel series Coda (the same musical term in applied to the end of all magic in the novel, a reference to the world’s loss of the musicality of life), The Lord of the Rings, and even Pixar’s recent animated film Onward, and the existential torture at the heart of most noir fiction, with a cautionary lesson in reaching for something you shouldn’t have and doing it in such a way that you ruin things not only for yourself but everyone around you.

Part of what makes The Last Smile in Sunder City such a richly original delight is that it takes it time in telling its story.

It’s no slow waltz on the dancefloor by any means, with things moving along at a pleasingly brisk clip, but it is not afraid to let Fetch ruminate, either within his own tortured or onetime friends and colleagues, many of whom detest for his role in ending the world as they all knew it, on what reed and avarice have cost him and the entire human race (including love of the “wuv, twu wuv” Princess Bride variety, which you know doesn’t come along every day).

“We all have our account of what it was like when it happened. Stories of the Coda have been told and retold around campfires or to kids or into the ears of tired spouses every day since it occurred. I sometimes hear people say it was like a bomb going off. I heard a poet liken it to a lightning storm, or Richie once called it a thunderclap. It wasn’t like that at all. It was like walking into someone’s bedroom after right after their funeral … It was over. The world will continue to turn and there will still be jobs and seasons and kissing and chocolate; there just won’t be any music in it anymore.” (PP. 259 -260)

Binding all this grief and pain together is the whodunnit part of the story which comes, as these stories do, with a significant amount of “didn’t see that coming!” conspiracy and intrigue.

As Fetch’s investigation builds and builds, and we learn more about what he and the world used to be like, and how almost-despairingly broken it is now, it becomes apparent that while an immense amount has been lost, there is a sliver of hope that life just might, MIGHT, be able to find its way back to something approaching satisfying.

Because for all the loss inherent in the incalculable damage humanity in general, and Fetch in particular, has done, there is still a chance, once the mystery is solved, that something good is salvageable from all the festering wrack and ruin of Sunder City.

This hope is not some offered in some sort of twee, Disney-esque fashion (that is the last thing this robustly affecting fantasy novel is) but rather against the backdrop of great loss and pain, and the deep,aching sadness and regret that comes with it, with the grim reality of what has been wrought and the fact that there is no easy solution to the consequential hellscape created, always front and centre.

For all that bleakness, The Last Smile in Sunder City is an appealing joy, imaginatively premised, beautifully and invitingly written with an inherent streak of Pratchett-esque humour and levity and characters you come to care deeply about it, all of them combining in a story that is so substantially rich and immersive that you can only hope Arnold, a writing talent on the rise, chooses to revisit this world.

Life isn’t done with Fetch Phillips just yet, and while he might only see the slimmest of hopes that things can improve, a bit of hope is better than nothing and with the trolls on the move (trust us, that’s a BIG thing), who knows where it all could lead?

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