Book Review for The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold - fantasy, mystery, and noir

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

Title: The Last Smile in Sunder City

Author: Luke Arnold

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: February 25, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: Just a few years ago, there was magic in the world. Magical creatures could tap into the river of it. Humans, though, were unable to touch it, so feared it and cut it off from the magical creatures. Now the creatures are suffering, having lost their magic, and are dying or trying to survive. In Sunder City, former soldier turned PI Fetch Phillips is Human, the human responsible for the magic loss. Living with the guilt of what he did, especially since he had loved a being of magic, he only takes cases from non-humans, and his current one has him searching for a missing Vampire teacher, who may be hot on the trail of bringing magic back.

Honestly, the actual book description is a lot more interesting than mine, so, if you want to see it for yourself, hop down to the bottom and click on the Get your copy link. I could have used it here, but, as much as it intrigued me and was one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book, it also meant I wasn’t really sure of what kind of story I was getting myself into. Of course, it didn’t really matter because this book is really just that good. But I still like to know what the book I’m reading is about.

The Characters: Truly Flawed

The main character, the narrator, is Fetch Phillips. He’s a Human living in a city that was once full of magical creatures. He lived and worked alongside him, but as more of a second-class citizen since he’s Human. He earned the trust of high officials, but no one could look past his Human skin. He’s a fascinating creature with a fascinating backstory, and I loved that parts of the book flashed back on his life so the reader can see where he’s coming from. It paints him as a very complex character who had to make certain choices, whether they were entirely his own or not. I loved that he was so extremely flawed, often cocky and willing to put up a fight, but still had some morals. Honestly, I sometimes found it difficult to like him. I loved how flawed he was as it really made him feel human, but sometimes it felt like it went a little too far, right into the realm of unlikable. What bothered me the most was how self-centered he felt, putting his own desires ahead of his case. But he really was a rather interesting protagonist, caught between being noble and despicable.

There were a few interesting characters, but I felt only Fetch was noteworthy. Instead, what I found most interesting was the divide between magical creatures and Humans and how they were portrayed. There’s an obvious dislike between them, so reading about their role reversal was fascinating. The magical creatures went from being on top of the world, from being the leaders, to beings just trying to stay alive and scrape by in a world now run by smug Humans. The Humans fear the magical creatures, so now treat them like second-class citizens. I thought it was interesting to read about how the magical creatures tried to retain what had made them special and different while trying to adapt to the new world all while holding out hope for the return of magic.

The Setting: A Microcosm of a City

Largely set in Sunder City, the reader is offered brief glimpses of the greater world through Fetch’s backstory. As much as I would have liked to see more of the world, Sunder City itself is completely fascinating. It was something of a microcosm. I loved the feeling that Sunder had once been a beautiful city, full of magic and interesting things, but now is absolutely run down and beat up. Still, it’s functional, though far from pretty. It’s not the kind of place I would want to visit, but I did love how gritty it felt.

My favorite part of this book is probably the setting. As much as I love fantasy cities that are amazingly beautiful and breathtaking, I found Sunder City to be something of a breath of fresh air. It was different and, since the story is focused in the city, it really came alive. As rough as it was, it felt scarily real, reminding me very much of a large metropolitan city that could be found just about anywhere in the world. Though perhaps a bit more rundown and ominous.

The Plot: A Fantastic Noir Mystery

This is a fantasy and a mystery with noir elements. Some of it was done better than other pieces, but I have high hopes for future books now that the world has been sufficiently built. That’s right, this book focuses more on the world building and development of Fetch. It felt more like a vehicle to introduce a character and a particular world. It was high on fantasy and low on mystery.

The mystery itself involved a missing Vampire teacher. I have to admit it wasn’t very exciting, except for the character Fetch referred to as Flyboy who worked for the Vampires and would, um, pop in to see Fetch unexpectedly. There were times when I just completely lost track of the development of the case because Fetch just seemed to abandon it now and then in favor of pursuing his own interests. It was a little bit of a shock towards the end when the mystery really heated up and got flowing. The entire middle portion, though, was so light on mystery that I kind of forgot what it was.

My favorite element was the noir. I have a fondness for that noir feel and was delighted to find it in this book. It helped make the city, Fetch, and the story feel gritty and rough. It took out all the pretty I usually look forward to in a fantasy book. But it wasn’t consistently done. There were many places where I wasn’t getting that noir feel and was quite disappointed with it. I think this would have been amazing if it had been consistent.

Overall, this book was slim on the plot, but it did flow well. It focused on developing the world and the characters, so it did flow. I just wish there had been more to the mystery, or had maybe introduced a more complex mystery. Still, the solution of it creates more possibilities for future books and I can see how the world can evolve. My favorite part, though, was just how well it flowed. I read aloud to my daughter every day and this was just a dream to read aloud. It was beautiful and flowing, which was a delightful contrast to the content!

Overall: Focus on World and Character Development

With a focus on character development and world building, this is not the kind of book that would satisfy someone who loves a good story. The plot wasn’t exactly exciting, but I have high hopes that the storytelling will get better with each book now that the place and characters have been established. It’s an interesting start to a series with some nice elements, and I really hope the noir carries through to the rest of the books. Overall, a very nice book that did fall short, but really excelled in other areas.

How many cups of tea will you need?

4 cups should do very well

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Thank you to Netgalley and Orbit for an advance e-copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

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