Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold; narrated by the author (Hachette Audio 978-1-54915049-4, $25.98, digital download, 8 hr., unabridged) February 2020.
There has always been a lively debate, in this column and among the audiobook listening community at large, as to whether a book should be narrated by the author or by a professional narrator. Authors have an intimacy with their material that’s difficult to duplicate, while professional narrators typically offer a variety of distinct voices and a level of acting ability that many authors can’t quite reach. When the author is also a professional narrator or actor, though, then some truly interesting things can happen. Ideally, the result is someone with the deepest knowledge of the story’s characters, matched with the ability to make those characters come to life precisely as imagined.
So here is actor Luke Arnold’s first novel, and his vocal choices reveal quite a lot about how he thinks about his characters. Although he himself is Australian, we hear very few Australian accents in the story; most seem to be various flavors of British, perhaps because he thinks of high fantasy creatures as possessing a British accent? In sharp contrast, his first-person narrator gets an American accent, because despite being a denizen of a fantasy world, Fetch Phillips is that most quintessentially American of characters, the noir detective: downtrodden, frequently beaten to a pulp (ha, ha), full of dark secrets, shady but good-hearted, and desperate to atone.
Magic once infused Fetch’s world, and the many magical creatures inhabiting it thought themselves superior the magic-less humans. As an orphaned human boy and then a young man, Fetch was seemingly welcomed by human and magical societies, only to be monstrously betrayed by both, which ultimately led to his key role in the destruction of magic’s source. Years later, formerly magical creatures are bereft of their abilities and health, technology limps along without magic, and a guilt-tormented Fetch barely gets by as a PI who won’t take on human cases. When a universally beloved vampire professor and a young siren with dreams of becoming a singer both disappear, Fetch takes on the twin cases, uncovering ugly and dangerous truths unlikely to lead to a happy ending for anyone.
The story elements will feel familiar, but this is still a well-constructed, thoughtful, and entertaining bit of pastiche that is competently and comfortably voiced. This is obviously the setup for a long-running series, and the sequel, Dead Man in a Ditch, is already out. I’ll be interested to see if Arnold can keep things reasonably fresh as he continues.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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