The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 6 February 2020)

Series: Fletch Phillips Archives – Book One

Length: 318 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

From debuting Australian author Luke Arnold comes The Last Smile in Sunder City, an absolutely superb piece of fantasy fiction that presents a unique and powerful story of loss, redemption and despair in fantastic new universe.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the debut novel of Australian actor Luke Arnold. Arnold, who has appeared in a number of Australian television shows and movies, is probably best known internationally for playing Long John Silver in the pirate adventure series Black Sails. Arnold has now made the rather interesting career change to writing fantasy fiction with this first book, which is the start of a new series known as the Fetch Phillips Archives. I have actually been looking forward to The Last Smile in Sunder City for a little while now, as I liked the intriguing-sounding plot synopsis and I thought that this book had some real potential.

The continent of Archetellos has always had magic, with nearly every race or being having some access to the power that ran through the lands, extending their lives and giving them rare and amazing abilities. With these powers, the magical races ruled Archetellos, until the humans, the only race not gifted with magic, attempted to steal it for themselves. This resulted in the event known as the Coda, which saw all magic erased from the world. Overnight, the multitudes of beings who relied on magic for their very existence either died or were stricken down. The few survivors of these former magical races are now deformed, crippled and slowly dying in pain.

Fetch Phillips has been many things in his life (a guard, a peacekeeper, a soldier and a criminal) but now he is barely eking out a living as a man for hire in the former magical industrial hub known as Sunder City, which has been suffering ever since its magical fires went out. For a small fee Fetch will help you with whatever problem you have, although his sobriety will cost you extra. He only has only one condition: he won’t work for humans; his only clients are those former magical beings who need his help, because it’s Fetch’s fault that their magic is gone and never coming back.

Fetch’s latest case sees him hired by a school that specialises in teaching the children of former magical creatures. One of their professors, an ancient vampire who is slowly turning to dust, has gone missing, and the school is desperate to find him. Diving into the shady underbelly of the city, Fetch attempts to find some trace of the vampire or anyone who wanted to hurt him. But when one of the vampire’s students, a young siren, also disappears, Fetch needs to step up his game to find them. However, even without magic there are still monsters in Sunder City, and Fetch may not be able to survive his encounter with them.

This was a really impressive piece of fantasy fiction. With The Last Smile in Sunder City, Arnold has absolutely nailed his debut, presenting a clever and captivating fantasy mystery which makes full use of its inventive setting and excellent central protagonist to create an impressive and memorable book. This is a truly enjoyable story that contains a fascinating central mystery that blends extremely well with the book’s fantasy elements. I had a great time unravelling the full extent of this intriguing story, and Arnold takes the plot in some very interesting directions, producing some excellent twists and clever false leads. This is less of an action-based novel and more of an exploratory story which sets out the world and features a man of the city running through his contacts to investigate a curious disappearance. I think this worked out extremely well for this book, as it fitted into the book’s classic PI vibe while serving as a great introduction to the city which is no doubt going to be the main setting for any future books in this series. Arnold has also created a couple of fantastic subplots which not only help to explore the world but also help to expand on the compelling darker tone that has been injected into this book.

Without a doubt, the major highlight of this book is the deeply inventive and fascinating new world that Arnold has produced. When I first read The Last Smile in Sunder City’s plot synopsis about a world where magic no longer existed, I was intrigued and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea. However, I was not prepared for just how impressive and creative this turned out to be. In order to tell his story, the author first created a detailed fantasy world that was filled with a huge variety of classic magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, where magic was the ultimate power and in which humans, who have no access to magic, are second-class citizens. While this would have been an interesting place to set a fantasy mystery, the author immediately flips this setting on its head by showing how humans attempted to steal the magic from its source (via an animation intended for children that was cut across by the protagonist’s memories, which was a fantastic way to introduce this plot point), and how their intrusion resulted in the complete destruction of magic.

This of course leads to a very interesting world, as now all the creatures and beings who previously survived on magic have had their lives irreversibly altered. Arnold spends a good part of the book exploring the impact of this loss of magic, examining the impacts on the previously immortal elves who all suddenly died from old age, the werewolves and other shapeshifters who found themselves deformed and stuck at the halfway point between human and animal, the vampires who all lost their fangs and are slowly crumbling to dust, sirens whose human husbands all simultaneously left them, and so much more. There are also some cool examinations of the change in status quo, with humans now becoming the dominant species on the continent thanks to their superior numbers (humans were not affected by the Coda) and their ability to use technology as a substitute for the magic that used to run everything. Of course, humans being humans, there are a couple of examples of humanity taking revenge against the magical creatures that previously dominated the continent, which the author does a good job of working into the plot. All of this proves to be an extremely fascinating and enjoyable overarching backdrop to the story of The Last Smile in Sunder City, and I really have to congratulate Arnold on his amazing imagination. Every detail about this creative world was really cool, and I loved seeing how his vision of a fantasy realm bereft of magic come to life.

The main location of this book is the titular Sunder City. Sunder City is a former magical metropolis which has suffered in the post-Coda period. Once a place of marvels and magically-powered industry, the city is now a shell of its former self, with most magical beings now living in slums and struggling to get by without their abilities. There is a bit of a Depression-era vibe to Sunder City, especially as Arnold does an excellent job of imbuing much of the city with a sense of despair, resentment and hopelessness. This really turned out to be a fantastic city to serve as the book’s primary setting, and I really enjoyed the protagonist’s exploration of it as he attempts to find the missing people. There are some really intriguing elements to this city which are worked into the overarching mystery plot extremely well, such as a hostile police force, businesses catering to former magical creatures and gangs of humans trying to cause trouble. All of this is pretty amazing, and I look forward to seeing more adventures and mysteries take place in Sunder City, especially if the author spends time looking at new types of former magical creatures that weren’t featured in this first book.

In addition to the compelling story and outstanding settings, Arnolds rounds out this awesome book with an intriguing central protagonist, Fetch Phillips. Fetch, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is a drunk, depressed and broken man, who is essentially a classic noir PI in a fantasy world. While Fetch can at times be funny or entertaining, mostly due to his sarcastic and confrontational style, his defining characteristics are his overwhelming guilt and despair. This is due to the fact that he is largely responsible for the humans destroying magic, which resulted in so much death and suffering. The full story behind Fletch’s involvement in this atrocity is chronicled in the book through a series of flashbacks which show his origin, the friendships he formed and the events and emotions that led up to his darkest moment. Due to his role in the causing the Coda, and the fact that he betrayed the trust of several friends, Fletch is filled with all manner of self-loathing and must now deal with his complicated emotions towards other humans, who he detests, and the former magical creatures he is compelled to help, most of whom now hate him. Despite all this darkness, there is a little bit of light within Fletch as he struggles against his demons and his past to find redemption and live up to a promise he made. I thought that this portrayal of Fletch was a great part of the book, and I loved the complexity that Arnold has imparted on his protagonist. I also really enjoyed the way that the author showed off the character’s past, centring the flashbacks on the four tattoos he has on his arm, and exploring the meaning behind them. This mixture of the mystery in the present and the look at the events in the character’s past worked really well together, and they help show off an amazing central protagonist who is going to be a fantastic centrepiece for this series going forward.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold is a superb and highly addictive fantasy mystery that presents the reader with a fantastic and thrilling story. While the book is mostly a clever and enjoyable mystery, its true strengths are the unique and captivating settings and the complicated, well-written protagonist, both of which help to transform this amazing novel into a first-rate read. Thanks to this excellent debut, Arnold has proven that he is a talent to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre, and I am looking forward to seeing what he produces next. The Last Smile in Sunder City comes highly recommended, and I think many people are going to enjoy this exciting new Australian author.

Guest Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

For this entry, my lovely and talented editor Alex steps out of the shadows once again (after previously reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth) and provides us with a guest review of a book she recently picked up.

The Fowl Twins Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: The Fowl Twins – Book One

Length: 432 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Unseen Library occasionally raises the topic of auto-buy authors, and Eoin Colfer is one of mine. I’m already hyped for Highfire, so you can imagine my excitement when I happened upon a display of The Fowl Twins in a department store the other day. I didn’t even break my stride or pause to read the back cover; as soon as I saw the words “Colfer” and “Fowl” I picked up a copy and had started reading it before I reached the checkout queue. The eight Artemis Fowl books followed the eponymous juvenile criminal mastermind and his many run-ins with the People, the secret civilisation of magical beings living deep underground. The series ran from 2001 to 2012 and was one of my favourites growing up, so I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Colfer is now continuing the saga.

The Fowl Twins picks up the story several years after Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, the final book in the original series. Artemis himself gets a rest; this story follows his younger brothers, Myles and Beckett. Myles is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Artemis and their father, with a talent for the sciences, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a penchant for fashionable suits and cutting insults. Beckett is more interested in active pursuits and making friends with wildlife, but he shares the same cunning and passionate loyalty that Fowls are famous for. The twins were only toddlers in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian and have no memory of the People, and it appears that their lives have been relatively quiet since those events. But in the Fowl world quiet never lasts for long, and when a rare troll surfaces on the family estate the twins suddenly find themselves in the midst of a cat-and-mouse game with an LEP specialist, an immortal duke and a knife-wielding nun.

Given that this is the ninth book set in the Fowl universe, the story is built upon a great deal of already-established Fairy lore and, indeed, laws. However, it does not wholly rely on readers having a certain level of assumed knowledge; Colfer ensures that no reader gets left behind. The appropriate backstory and important details are provided where necessary in his usual elegant style so that new readers are informed and old fans aren’t bored by the rehashing of exposition. As an old fan myself, albeit one with an appalling memory, I really appreciated the unobtrusive reminders of previous events in the Fowl canon.

There is of course a lot for fans of the original series to enjoy, including some excellent cameos. I found that many elements of the story mirrored the original Artemis Fowl. Myles and Beckett are around the same age Artemis was in his first Fairy adventure, and it was amazing to see how their different upbringings shaped them. When we first meet Artemis, he is in a desperate pursuit to rescue his father from a Russian mafia and his mother from her rapidly deepening delirium. Myles and Beckett, on the other hand, have enjoyed an upbringing with an intact, stable family and without the inherent danger that comes with being part of an active criminal empire. They are, as a result, far more well adjusted 11-year-olds, and it was so enjoyable to see the bond the boys all share.

Also like Artemis Fowl, The Fowl Twins features at its core a plot to kidnap a Fairy creature for personal gain, but this time the Fowls are innocent. Instead, the baddie is the whimsically named Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, who I can’t help but imagine as a scoundrel in the style of Terry-Thomas, whose ruthless quest for immortality leads him to the Fowl estate to tackle a troll. No Fowl story would be complete without the involvement of the LEP, and Specialist Lazuli Heitz finds herself in an uncomfortably similar position to Captain Holly Short, in that her supposedly straightforward surface mission goes immediately haywire as soon as the Fowls get involved. Lazuli is an excellent addition to the main cast of characters, and her talent for quick-thinking and creative problem-solving perfectly complement those of the boys she finds herself teamed up with.

The Fowl Twins is an excellent blend of suspense and action, and Eoin Colfer’s impeccably charming style of omniscient narration means there’s never a dull moment. The story is also incredibly fast-paced, with 400-odd pages covering only a couple of days, and so compelling that I finished reading it in no time. This book is fun for all ages and would make an excellent Christmas gift for a young new reader, a 20-something who loved the original series, or really anyone who enjoys a suspenseful story with a magical element. I can’t wait to see more adventures of Myles, Beckett and Lazuli.

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Lies Sleeping Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gollancz and Orion Audio (Audiobook format – 15 November 2018)

Series: Rivers of London – Book 7

Length: 10 hours 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive headfirst into one of the best urban fantasy series in the world today, with the seventh book in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, Lies Sleeping.

London is a magical place, especially for Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard.  Peter is a member of an elite unit of the London Metropolitan Police, known as the Folly, which is tasked with investigating magical crimes and protecting the city from all sorts of magical threats.  The person at the top of the Folly’s most wanted list is Martin Chorley, also known as the Faceless Man, a magical criminal mastermind who is determined to do whatever it takes to gain power.  However, despite the Met and the Folly’s considerable resources, Chorley is always able to stay one step ahead of those chasing him.

During a routine attempt to subtly panic several of Chorley’s known associates, a magical creature attacks a potential witness.  Peter’s investigation soon reveals that the witness had ordered the forging of a large and mysterious bell, which Chorley is desperate to get his hands on.  As Peter and his team dig deeper in the bell’s construction, they quickly begin to realise that Chorley is the final stages of his master plan, a plan tied deeply into the heart of London’s dark and bloody history, and one which could cause untold disaster for the entire city.

As the clock ticks down, Peter needs to work out the connection between London’s past and the mysterious magical events occurring all over the city.  Can Peter and his team once again save the day, or will their adversary finally obtain the power he has always desired?  Moreover, what will Peter do when he comes face to face with the woman who betrayed him to Chorley, his old partner in the Met, Lesley May?

Ben Aaronovitch is a highly regarded author with an interesting writing history to his name.  His writing career began back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he wrote a couple of Doctor Who television serials, including the highly regarded serial Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as three entries in the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who books.  The Virgin New Adventure series chronicled the adventures of the Doctor after the television show’s hiatus in 1989.  Aaronovitch’s three entries in this book series sound incredibly interesting, although they were considered to be somewhat controversial at the time due to their more adult content.  Aaronovitch did not get around to writing his fantasy work until 2011, when he wrote the urban fantasy Rivers of London.  This was the first book in the author’s Rivers of London series of books (alternatively known as the Peter Grant series or the PC Grant series), for which the author is best known for.  The Rivers of London series is very highly regarded, and Aaronovitch has worked hard to expand on the story and universe of this series, writing a number of novellas, short stories and graphic novels on top of the series’ main seven books.

Before Lies Sleeping, I had never got around to reading any of Aaronovitch’s books, despite hearing good things about his main series.  As a result, I was very happy that I finally managed to check out the series earlier this year.  I did receive a trade paperback edition from Hachette Australia, but in the end, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of this book, narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  I have to say that I was extremely impressed with this brilliant book and found that I really enjoyed the excellent and captivating story.  Lies Sleeping easily gets a full five-star rating from me, and I fully intend to go back and check out the other books in this series.  This book is an excellent blend of the fantasy and crime fiction genres, both of which come together perfectly to create an extremely compelling and complex read.

Lies Sleeping will prove to be extremely appealing to huge range of people; not only pre-existing fans of the series but also those readers who have not read any of the Rivers of London books before.  As a first-time Aaronovitch reader, I found that it was incredibly easy to step in and enjoy this series, as the author did a fantastic job making Lies Sleeping accessible to everyone.  While Aaronovitch has created a huge amount of lore around his series, including in his novellas and comics, the reader does not need to have any knowledge of these or the previous six books in the series to fully understand the entirety of Lies Sleeping’s story.  However, those readers who do have experience with this series will love how the story continues to development, as well as the massive and surprising twists that occur throughout the book.

At the core of this book lies a series of intriguing mysteries that take place throughout London.  In order to achieve his villainous goals, the antagonist has embarked on a series of seemingly random and chaotic crimes and ventures, all of which apparently form part of his master plan.  These various mysteries or criminal events were really interesting, and I liked trying to work out how they would all come together.  I particularly liked how various parts of these mysteries were deeply tied into the history of London, and the protagonist needed to gain a historical understanding of some of various myths and legends surrounding London.  Watching the protagonist attempt to unwind the complex plan of the book’s villains was extremely compelling, and I had a great time trying to work out what was happening myself.  One or two threads of these mysteries did go unsolved in this book, and I will be curious to see if they are picked up in any of the future entries in this franchise.

Aaronovitch is clearly a very creative writer, as he utilises a huge range of different and fairly unique fantasy elements throughout this book.  While there are a large number of wizards, spells and elvish beings throughout the book, the main focus is on the titular rivers of the series.  The more common magical beings encountered in this series are the personifications of the various rivers and waterways (current and historical) that flow through and around London.  These beings are similar to gods, although the term genius loci may be more appropriate, and have a huge range of powers.  These are a really intriguing addition to the book, and it was interesting to see the protagonist attempt to deal and interact with the various river characters, including his girlfriend, Beverly Brooke (yes, the main character of this series is dating a river).  There is also a huge range of other genius loci, or similar beings, that are featured within the story, including the mysterious and insane Mr Punch.  The magic that the human characters utilise is complex and slightly less ostentatious than some classic pieces of fantasy, but when the master wizards get to work it can be quite impressive.

One of the things I liked best about this book is how the author could create a realistic British police narrative and ensure magic became part of the procedure.  The Folly may be a special branch of the Metropolitan Police, but it is still part of the police force, and as such the characters are forced to follow standard procedure when investigating magical crimes.  Having these elite magical characters fill out paperwork and other various elements of day-to-day police life was deeply amusing.  I did like seeing how regular law enforcement tactics, anti-crime strategies and police combat techniques could be utilised against magical opponents.  The overall fantasy elements of this book are really enjoyable, but I really liked to see them be blended with a classic British police story.

Aaronovitch has done a fantastic job creating a huge and intriguing group of characters for this series.  The protagonist of Lies Sleeping and the Rivers of London series is Peter Grant, police officer and official wizard’s apprentice.  Peter is the sort of protagonist I really enjoy (sarcastic, funny and determined) so I quite enjoyed having him narrate the story, making a number of great jokes throughout.  The other police characters make up a great supporting and diverse cast, with a range of different abilities and characteristics.  I especially liked the classy and wise Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the last officially sanctioned English wizard and Peter’s mentor.  He is an extremely charming and old-fashioned character who has a huge amount of magical power at his fingertips and who can be quite intimidating if he puts his mind to it.  I also quite enjoyed the other magical characters that appeared throughout the book, as Aaronovitch has created a bevy of river gods and associated genius loci characters.  I liked how many of these ancient characters portrayed modern characteristics and ways of speaking, even when talking in a historical context.  Long-time readers of the series will also enjoy the further exploration of several recurring characters, including finally revealing the backstory of the mysterious Mr Punch.

While the protagonists and supporting cast are great characters, I really liked the antagonists in this story.  The main villain of the story is Martin Chorley, also known as the Faceless Man.  He is an excellent antagonist who is built up as a master planner, master magician and crazy villain before you even see him in the book.  His master plan was fairly complex, and the character’s overall arc in this book featured some massive twists that I did not see coming.  Lesley May is another really complex character who is a great addition to the series.  Her relationship with Peter is one of the best parts of the book, as even after her betrayals earlier in the series, he is still trying to save her from herself.  The way this works out in the end is quite dramatic, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from there.

While a large part of this book is set out more as a slow and steady police procedural, there are some fantastic action sequences within Lies Sleeping.  These come about when the protagonist attempts to stop the plans of the Faceless Man, and all manner of chaos erupts.  Nothing highlights this better than an extended action sequence which involves Peter chasing after a van on a bicycle, throwing fireballs, while all manner of debris is magically flung at him and several pursuing police vehicles.  The magical duels between some of the participants, mainly Nightingale and Martin Chorley, can be particularly impressive, but I personally liked how many of the confrontations devolved into fist fights as both sides attempt to distract the other and disrupt their castings.  Plus, where else are you likely to see British police with truncheons attempt to fight evil wizards?  These amazing action sequences really added to the story, and it was great to see all this magic in action, rather than being theorised the entire time.

While I would have already been tempted to give Lies Sleeping a five-star review, the thing that definitely clinches it for me is the amazing audiobook adaption of the novel, narrated by actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  At nearly 10 hours and 30 minutes, this is a moderately easy audiobook to get through, and I had an absolute blast listening to it.  Holdbrook-Smith has an amazing voice and his work narrating this audiobook was just incredible.  His voice for protagonist and story narrator Peter perfectly encapsulated the character and got the full force of his witty and enjoyable personality across to the reader.  I really liked all the voices that Holdbrook-Smith created for the various characters featured throughout Lies Sleeping, especially for some of the magical creatures, who had an air of ancient wisdom in their voices.  However, without a doubt my favourite voice was the one for Nightingale.  The voice chosen for Nightingale is full of all sorts of old British class, and I thought it fit the character perfectly and was one of my favourite parts of this whole audiobook.  Aside from the outstanding voice work, I also quite liked the jazzy music that was played at the start of each chapter.  It gave the book a real noir private investigator feel, and I like how it added to the tone of the book as a whole.  The audiobook version of this book also helped me understand the story a bit better as an outsider to the series, and that, combined with Holdbrook-Smith’s brilliant voice work, makes me completely happy to recommend the audiobook format of Lies Sleeping.

Aaronovitch once again delivers a spectacular read that expertly combines amazing fantasy and crime fiction elements into one widely outstanding narrative.  There are so many excellent elements to this book, and I had absolutely loved my first foray into the Rivers of London series.  I strongly recommend listening to the Lies Sleeping audiobook, narrated by the very talented Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, but those readers who prefer to read their books will also find much to enjoy about this fantastic book.  This is one of the best urban fantasy books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  I fully intend to go back and check out all the preceding books in this series, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.  Five stars all the way.