Fantasy and noir make for strange bedfellows in Luke Arnold’s debut novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City. Taken separately, both stylistic elements have their own levels of appeal and varying degrees of success despite their over-reliance on well-trod tropes. Combined, they become something a bit more unwieldy and narratively dissonant. To be sure, good writing can transcend often half-baked ideas, but half-baked ideas coupled with mid-level writing more often than not make for a less than satisfactory reading experience. Such is the case with The Last Smile in Sunder City, despite Arnold’s best attempts.

Told from the perspective of Fetch Phillips, a human (and minority species) living in a world of fantastical creatures and beings, Last Smile follows a classic noir template from start to finish. There’s a central mystery involving a missing vampire and young siren, a morally-compromised protagonist whose past drives him to drink, cursory characters whose only purpose is to help further the narrative, and a series of ever-compounding mysteries within the larger mystery designed to leave the reader guessing until the end. The trouble with keeping so many plates in the air—in general, let alone in a genre mashup like this—is making sure each and every narrative thread adds up or is addressed at some point. Arnold becomes so wrapped up in his own story and the myriad narrative threads contained therein that, by novel’s end, it comes off as more of a jumbled mess than coherent story.

It’s not for a lack of trying on his part, however. And, to his credit, he more or less manages to keep the plot moving along despite the need for expository world-building through rather contrived dialogue that helps bring the reader more up to speed than the central characters. In other words, fantasy’s long-held tradition of needing to establish a believable world full of fantastical elements and unfamiliar settings becomes something of a hindrance in the guise of a more straightforward genre exercise like your typical noir.

Phillips, acting as a hired man, is not only a minority species, but also directly responsible, through his time with the human army, of removing all magical elements from a world wholly dependent upon magic. It’s an interesting idea—what would happen to magical creatures and beings if the very magic on which their entire existence is based suddenly disappears?—but tends to get lost in the shuffle of trying to build and explain a world in which these characters have thrived for millennia. Add in some thinly veiled commentary on mankind’s aiding and abetting the environmental degradation of our own world, a dash of the current craze for xenophobia and a subplot involving the displacement of the lower classes and you’ve got a heady stew that collapses under the weight of its own ambition.

But in the midst of all this are a number of interesting ideas that Arnold manages to more or less flesh out via Phillips and a handful of magical beings whose lives are forever changed by the decisions of Phillips himself. Overcome with guilt from his role in causing the magic to simply vanish, he throws himself into his work in an attempt to help those he threw into suffering, working only for the formerly magical and forgoing any sort of human interaction. As a marked man, this becomes a dangerous proposition as he’s long since made a name for himself as the one who brought about the undoing of the world as it was previously known. Yet this self-flagellating approach serves as both a sort of penance for his previous actions and an attempt to make amends with those he’s harmed, making Phillips a sort of antihero who is also his own worst enemy.

Navigating the previously fire-fueled streets of Sunder City, Phillips drinks his way through the main case in an attempt to not only crack the case, but also something within himself. Picking fights to gain information and deliberately putting himself in harm’s way to better understand motivation are but a few of his ill-advised tactics that yield, like Arnold’s genre mashup, varying results. The coupling of fantastical elements and noir mystery make for an interesting pairing in theory, but The Last Smile in Sunder City becomes too bogged-down in its own world-building, myriad plot lines, inconsequential characters and tonal disparity to be truly effective. When the plot moves along, Arnold’s skill as a writer (he’s spent the majority of his career as an actor) comes to the fore, making for an engaging read. But unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between to make The Last Smile in Sunder City as effective as it could well have been.

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