Fetch Phillips became a favorite character of mine after reading The Last Smile in Sunder City, and Luke Arnold’s craft at storytelling meant that I have been recommending his books ever since. When I picked up Dead Man in a Ditch, I was excited for the return to the fantasy noir genre, which always promises to be refreshing and sobering. Coming back to the gritty world of Sunder City as well as the grim and dour perspective of Mr. Phillips were both things I was looking forward to in this novel. As The Last Smile in Sunder City introduced readers to Fetch and the world he lives in, Dead Man in a Ditch is the story of what happens to this man after possibly finding another spark of magic, and another opportunity for him to “do some good.”
The Last Smile in Sunder City asked what do you do when the magic runs out? Dead Man in a Ditch asks what happens when there might be a chance for magic to return? Fetch Phillips’ story brings readers back to Sunder City, where after the events of the first novel, people have begun to think of him as a man searching for ways to bring magic back. Naturally, when there is a murder that seems to only be explained as magical, Fetch is the one they call. His investigation takes him across Sunder City, giving readers more insight into the dark underbelly and tarnished high society of the city. Bits of Fetch’s history are mentioned, though nowhere near as extensively as in The Last Smile in Sunder City, and are interspersed contextually and intentionally. Dynamics of power and influence are clearly at play in Sunder, and as the plots that are afoot clarify before Fetch, characters both old and new have their parts to play in what may become the fight for the heart and soul of Sunder City.
The story in this novel moves faster, and it felt like it was easier to read through the story even as much as I enjoyed The Last Smile in Sunder City. Dead Man in a Ditch doesn’t have all the back and forth with Fetch’s backstory; it’s nearly entirely made of the current events. Every few chapters there are short excerpts containing flashbacks or pieces of Fetch’s early life, always immediately relevant to what was currently going on with Fetch in Sunder. I felt this was a really good way to have Dead Man in a Ditch go, especially after how the split timelines of The Last Smile in Sunder City worked so incredibly well. To me, it proved that not only can Luke Arnold expertly write a story that informs backstory as it develops, but he can just as masterfully carry a story of comparable length without the shift in timelines.
One unique aspect that I really appreciate about how Fetch Phillips is written, is that as a main character, he doesn’t enjoy the typical plot armor that many protagonists do, especially those within the greater fantasy genre. He took his knocks in The Last Smile in Sunder City thoroughly, but I dare say Dead Man in a Ditch punishes our man for hire even more, but does so in a way that is not self-indulgent. While much of Fetch’s turmoil is still very much internal, the life he leads in Sunder City is by no means comfortable or safe, and his choices only serve to highlight that reality. Luke Arnold shows how truly fragile humans are in his setting, and using the backdrop of what a magical world once was, he does so in a way that shows not only were humans fragile, but now everyone else is as well. And that is an important aspect of the story. Humans have always been fragile and weak, though after the Coda when the world lost its magic, many in the world saw humans as becoming more powerful. In reality, everyone else just became so much weaker. Humans have always been the same, but perhaps no longer being the weakest species in the world brought out the worst in them.
The author handles his tropes and expectations beautifully, subverting some while fully indulging others, and he does so in ways that could not have made me happier as a reader. Fetch is the perfect noir man-for-hire, he’s not a brilliant detective, he’s no savant, he’s just an imperfect man who is hell-bent on whatever is put in front of him. Sometimes he does just enough, other times when he believes in what he’s doing, he puts every last drop of blood and sweat into it. He’s a raw and authentic character, and the author tells us the story of this man in a way that is unrelenting, remarkably honest, and even heartbreaking in places.
Luke Arnold’s ability to capture fantasy through the noir lens, and in so tackle a world post-magic, has opened up fantasy to me in ways I never thought I would enjoy. He created characters and places deep and interesting, weaving in moral and philosophical dilemmas while at the same time telling a compelling story that is new and engaging. The Last Smile in Sunder City drew me into his work by tearing at my emotions, and Dead Man in a Ditch elevated his craft in my eyes through its brutal authenticity. A master storyteller in multiple mediums now, Luke Arnold has proven again that the written medium is one that he wields with precision and confidence. For readers who love gritty characters, grim settings, and stories that make you think and feel in measures equal to the thrills of the story being told, know that Dead Man in a Ditch should be on your list. This book has made me even more excited to dive into Arnold’s third entry to this series and most recent release, One Foot in the Fade.
Dead Man in a Ditch is written by Luke Arnold, and is published by Orbit.
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