Luke Arnold is possibly best known as the Australian actor who portrayed a young Long John Silver in Black Sails and singer Michael Hutchence in the INXS biopic Never Tear Us Apart. But he has plenty more strings to his bow and one of them, now, is as the author of the dark urban fantasy series The Fetch Phillips Archives. The Last Smile in Sunder City, is Arnold’s debut and the first book in a new series about a down and out PI in a decidedly non-magical world.
Fetch Phillips lives in a world without magic. Not our world, but rather a world which was once teeming with magic and magical creatures before a group of jealous, decidedly non-magical, humans, destroyed the source of magic. This event, known as the Coda, took the magic away from all of those creatures who depended on it – dragons fell from the sky, immortal elves instantly aged and crumbled to dust, trolls returned to the element that they were forged from. This is a very dark take on a Terry Pratchett-style world, the fantasy version of a post-apocalyptic world, with a vast range of creatures trying to pick up the pieces.
Fetch is a detective in Sunder City, a city that once ran on magic but is now having to adapt to new, human ways. He only works for non-humans, his guilt and anger at being one of those responsible for the Coda too great to handle any other way. He is hired by a school for the children of formerly-magical creatures to track down a Vampire teacher who has gone missing, a case that will take him to the highs and lows of Sunder City.
Fetch Phillips is a classic noir detective: cynical, damaged, stubborn and unstoppable. But he has to dig deep to be more depressed than the depressing situation in which his world finds itself. This is urban fantasy at its darkest and the closer Fetch gets to solving the case, the darker the whole thing becomes. And Fetch, even with all of the guilt he carries around, continues to make questionable calls and deals. The only light for him is in memory but even that is tainted by the course that Fetch ultimately found himself on.
The usual fantasy standard types are here – ogres, elves, vampires, dwarves, kobolds etc – but all have been drained of the magic spark that made them different. What is left is an extreme form of refugee crisis in which humans lord it over the other races only because they have not lost anything. And a noir detective investigation is the perfect way of exploring this situation and the city itself – from the slums up to city hall.
The Last Smile in Sunder City is an impressive debut – an audacious and engaging, if slightly depressing, piece of world building. Like Fetch, and every other ex-magical creature in this world, readers will find themselves hoping that somehow the malaise can be reversed. But in the meantime, everyone has to keep living in the world that they have created and make the best of it. And with another Fetch Phillips book due later in 2020, it seems that is what is what is likely to happen.