Book Review: Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Book Review: Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold, the second in the fantasy Fetch Phillips series

Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold, the second Fetch Phillips fantasy novelTitle: Dead Man in a Ditch

Author: Luke Arnold

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: September 22, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

One Sentence Summary: With half of Sunder City looking for magic’s return and the other half struggling to move forward, Man for Hire Fetch Phillips is stuck in the middle, until an old friend returns from the dead.

The Plot: The Question of How to Move Forward

Ever since Fetch Phillips found a vampire who somehow managed to stay young after the Coda that stripped the world of magic, people have been coming to him asking if magic is coming back. Fetch doesn’t believe so, but a paying client is a paying client and he can’t afford to be choosy.

His cases are simple enough: make sure a deal doesn’t go south, find who murdered a wealthy Human businessman, find out what happened to an Elf’s dearly departed husband, keep a strange new machine that shoots little metal pieces hidden. Simple, but they lead him deep into the bowels of the city and out to far reaches where secrets are just waiting to be found, and into the cane of an old friend.

Soon, Fetch is doing more than simply being a Man for Hire. Hired, sure, but he starts to find his way, his feet, and discovers his own cause, one that will have past and present, Humans and magic, careening towards an inevitable clash.

Where the first book, The Last Smile in Sunder City, felt more like a noir mystery, that facade quickly fell away in this book. The world has been sufficiently set up. The main character’s history has been thoroughly examined. Now the real story can get going, and what a story it is!

Dead Man in a Ditch is more serious, and heavier than the first book. It’s not much of a mystery or PI novel. Fetch is a Man for Hire and the series simply revolves around him. In this volume, it’s possible to say the direction the series might take, but, considering how surprised I was by this book, it’s impossible to say for sure what Arnold has in mind as the series progresses. While I expected more mystery couched firmly in fantasy, like the first book, this exploded into something more. It’s about progress, moving forward after mourning, looking to the future while attempting to atone for sins that can’t be forgiven but merely moved past, and a clash of worlds as the Humans stealthily try to sneak in and take over. But there’s also the allure of the past, the idea that magic is still out there, might still come back.

As heavy as Dead Man in a Ditch is, it offers an incredible amount of food for thought. It forces the reader to look at the world and Fetch in a different light. Whatever the overarching story might be, it looks like it’s taken a darker turn in this second installment, but, somehow, there’s still glimmers of hope. We just have to rely on Fetch Phillips, Man for Hire.

The Characters: It’s Fetch’s Story

Fetch Phillips is our tired, desperate, more likable protagonist. He caused the Coda and has spent the six years since trying to atone for that. He’s made a lot of enemies, and some questionable friends, but at least he’s honest (unless he’s trying to get some information for a case). Pain seems to be the only price he’s willing to pay, but he’ll gladly pay it if only it can help him set the world aright.

Fetch wasn’t exactly likable in the first book. It was almost as though Arnold was pushing him to the edge of palatable. There wasn’t much to redeem him, but Dead Man in a Ditch presents him in a new light, one that makes me like him a little bit more. He’s as broken as everyone else, but maybe more so. His desperation is clear and might make the reader sympathetic. But he really does try, and that’s almost noble.

Fetch doesn’t really have a knack for making friends, but he certainly has some old friends, one of whom pops up out of nowhere and leads him deep into a revolution. But every other character, no matter how little we see of them, was interesting and fleshed out, and had some kind of story with Fetch, whether it was old, recent, or entirely new. He might not know how to make friends, but he certainly knows how to make enemies. Most of the characters managed to help paint Fetch in a stark light: he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but does it anyways. He has his job, but what kind of job is it, exactly? Though I did find a number of them fascinating and important to the story, it was also impossible for me to not believe they weren’t there to help show Fetch in a certain light.

The Setting: Bitterly Stark and Cold

Since Fetch works and lives in Sunder City, it is here we are returned to for this second novel. Now, it’s winter and the city is bitterly cold. It’s there in the shivering, the snow dusting the ground, the layers and layers of clothing everyone wears, the longing for the fires that once lit up and warmed the city. It’s stark and it’s sad. With magic gone, every magical creature has been hit hard and is now struggling to put their lives together. Since the first book perfectly, and at length, set up the world, Dead Man in a Ditch had the luxury of glossing back over the details and instead using stark, unapologetic language to describe the atmosphere and the desperation in the city.

It’s not just the city we see, but the land surrounding it as well. Fetch’s cases and questions lead him far out of the city, through forests and abandoned cities. It’s wild, scary, and sad, but, without magic, everyone has been forced to find a new way of living, or a way of just coping until their untimely, too early death occurs. In my mind, it felt dark, constantly overcast, freezing cold, and just utterly abandoned. It’s opener than the city, but still holds the same stark, sad truth.

Overall: A Worthy Second Installment

Overall, Dead Man in a Ditch is a worthy follow up to the first novel. It picks up where it left off, but presents the story in a different way. It was surprising to not get more of the same, the rapidly unraveling case couched in fantasy, but also refreshing. The world has undergone a massive change and this novel addresses it and provides solutions while also keeping the story open for further installments. It felt a little jumpy at first with so many different cases, but they quickly began to tie together, and then it took a great leap that spun the story a different way, though it still managed to neatly tie back together. The middle was a little slow and sometimes I just wanted Fetch and the story to just hurry up and stop wallowing, but I did enjoy the novel and look forward to what comes next.

Great if you enjoy: The Last Smile in Sunder City, fantasy, something different, PI novels, character-driven novels, good world building

Not great if you’re looking for: standard mystery, focus on one case, lighthearted reads

How many cups of tea will you need?

4 cups should be perfect

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Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit for a free e-copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

Head over to the Bookshelf to check out my reviews of books from the Big 5 and self-published, indie, and small press books.

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