Hot on the heels of his high fantasy meets urban fantasy meets noir detective debut The Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold has delivered its sequel Dead Man in a Ditch. Arnold returns to his post-magical-apocalypse world and in particular Man for Hire Fetch Phillips. Once again Arnold manages to deliver a pitch perfect mix of fantasy and crime elements while also shining a light on the darker side of human nature.
In the world of Sunder City the magic is six years gone. The source of the world’s magic was estroyed by decidedly non-magical humans helped, much to his eternal shame, by turncoat Fetch Phillips. That story was told in detail in The Last Smile in Sunder City, including Fetch’s subsequent decision to only work for non-humans. While this volume contains more of his heartbreaking backstory, it is really just providing some additional colour and depth to that tale. It is a dark premise which Arnold plumbs to even darker places as the consequences of the loss of magic on formerly majestic creatures like dragons and unicorns are confronted.
When the book opens, Fetch is doing a protection job for a dwarf who has been promised unicorn horn in what turns out to be a scam. Being a sequel, Arnold does not have to spend time scene setting which allows the early action to rattle along. Before long, Fetch has been brought in by the police to help investigate a murder that looks an awful lot like it was committed by magic. Fetch does find a warlock who has found a gruesome way to weaponise some remnant magic, but along the way also uncovers a deeper plot connected to the future of Sunder City and the world.
Fetch Phillips narrates in a world-weary, pessimistic tone familiar to those who also read noir detective stories in the Marlowe or Hammett tradition. Phillips carries an impossible weight on his shoulders and he has a code but is constantly being challenged to question that code and asked to choose what side of history he is going to be on. But no matter how dark things get, Phillips continues to strive towards some kind of light, or at least his conception of where the light should be.
Arnold’s world, while dark and a little depressing, is unique, underpinned by a unique and inventive deconstruction of fantasy tropes and creatures. The story and setting feels like a cross between Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, with its eclectic mix of fantasy creatures (ogres, elves, vampires, werecats, unicorns etc)and the noir tone and sensibility of Chinatown or The Big Sleep. As with the previous book, the reader, much like Phillips himself, is likely to spend their time hoping that the magic will come back, even while knowing that life is not going to be that easy.
Dead Man in a Ditch is another great entry in what is shaping up to be an ongoing and continually intriguing series. This series shows how modern fantasy is constantly reinventing itself. Arnold uses classic sources as a jumping off point to draw in other genres and create an original take on formerly staid strait-jacketed material.
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Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.