REVIEW: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

3.5/5 stars — fantasy noir with imaginative worldbuilding and a world-weary protagonist I view The Last Smile in Sunder City as two stories: that of the eponymous city and that of the main character. The former interested me much more than the latter, which left me slogging through parts of the book that dove too deeply into main character Fetch’s Phillips' history and personal life. The fundamental tragedy and awkwardness of a society whose component individuals no longer understand who they are or how they’re meant to fit together was fascinating; Fetch himself was an unsympathetic protagonist I often couldn’t get behind. That bit in the blurb that recommends this book to fans of Jim Butcher? I did myself a bit of a disservice by ignoring it (or interpreting it optimistically, maybe), because The Last Smile in Sunder City parallels The Dresden Files in atmosphere, characterization, and theme. As in The Dresden Files, I enjoyed this book’s dark humor, its melange of urban fantasy and suspense-driven mystery, and the depth of its world. And as when reading The Dresden Files, I tired quickly of the main character’s self-flagellation without significant change in behavior and his attitude toward women. If you like Butcher’s writing, you’ll like this. If not…well. The pacing had issues. Novels that rely on flashbacks/dual timelines often lag unless the jumps between past and present are timed well in the structure of the over narrative. In this case, most of the scenes from the past timeline came in the late second act and early third act—just when the present-day story was trying to build suspense around a disappearance and murder investigation. A number of long passages explaining the world and its mechanics weighed the pace down further. Now for the positives! I know I came in heavy with the critique, but I did enjoy this book. I’m a sucker for punchy dialogue (internal or external) and quotable lines, and while Luke Arnold seems to live on the line between creative description and purple prose, I found even the riskier linguistic gambits memorable and mostly successful. For example, I loved this zeugma: “Mrs. Gladesmith came to the door dressed in a nightgown and despair.” Later, there was this simile, which is one of many I thought were clever: “His smile closed like a handbag with a broken zipper.” On the content level, I appreciated that the story interrogated the idea of a traumatic childhood driving a character’s negative actions in the present. I also liked how part of Fetch’s backstory involved members of a fictional hate group grooming him to believe he a) deserved more privilege than in-world minorities, and b) was threatened by those minorities’ mere existence. That kind of rhetoric is common in recruiting by real-world hate groups and it’s valuable to see how insidious that strategy can be. I also found the theme of loneliness compelling. We’ve got lines like, “Friends serve a purpose but every man needs a few good enemies to remind him who he is,” and “A good man is made through a lifetime of work. Great men are made by their monsters,” but for all his contemplation of friends and enemies, Fetch is isolated. He hates his fellow humans (with good reason, since they’re species supremacists in many cases) and is ostracized by those magical folk who survived the loss of magic. This struggle is one of the reasons I’m interested in continuing the series as sequels are published—I want to find out if Fetch ever becomes less misanthropic. Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying my experience of The Last Smile in Sunder City was a mixed bag. I recommend it with reservations—unless you like Jim Butcher a whole lot, in which case you’ll love this book too! Even though this specific story and main character aren’t super appealing to me, I really enjoyed Arnold’s prose and worldbuilding, and will likely pick up his future books. Content warnings: alcoholism, painkiller abuse/dependence, death, violence/gore ** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **