(2022) Luke Arnold, Orbit, £10.99, pbk, 436pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51618-9
Fetch Phillips, ‘Man for Hire’, is also a man with a mission. And that mission is to bring the magic back to Sunder City and by so doing, not only save its magical inhabitants but also atone for his own past sins. Fans of Luke Arnold’s fantasy series will no doubt welcome Fetch back with arms that are, if not fully open, given his noir-rooted character, at least willing to embrace Arnold’s dark and gritty world again. Here, in the latest instalment, the transition to an industrial society gathers steam, metaphorically and literally, and Fetch changes along with it, becoming both more reflective and also more willing to actually listen and learn, at least to some extent. Which is not to say that he doesn’t still make bad choices and takes the wrong path but the Fetch Phillips at the end cuts quite a different figure from his counterpart at the beginning of the story.
What drives that development in character and the plot overall is a quest, although this being a Sunder City tale, the quest in question is not your standard fantasy fare. It’s not just that joining Fetch is a crew that is motley to the max, including Eileen the Librarian, Khay, who’s a Genie, a werewolf called Theodor and Lazarus, or Larry, of The Bridge, a secret organisation also dedicated to bringing the magic back. It’s also that the vehicle for the quest isn’t a set of mighty steeds, or a small flotilla of elven boats … it’s a luxury motor car. Usefully provided by Larry’s wealthy parents and together with the mix of weaponry, from pistols to crossbows, nicely exemplifying the shifting nature of the world in which our squabbling protagonists find themselves (although also raising questions about where the fuel for the car comes from, given the apparent lack of associated infrastructure!).
The twists and turns along the road take up the second half of the tale and of course it wouldn’t be a modern fantasy novel if friends didn’t fall away and characters that you thought were going to be heroes turn out not to be so much. The book itself begins more like the kind of fantasy-detective story that we are familiar with from the earlier novels, with Fetch and Eileen tracking down stolen magical artefacts and exchanging snarky one-liners with Thurston Niles, local industrialist and Fetch’s nemesis, as well as with old ‘friends’ in the Sunder City police force. Then an Angel plummets to its death almost right in front of Fetch and he begins to realise that someone or something is able to channel magic back into the world, at least partly and for a limited time. The conduit is supplied by the artefacts of course and it’s the promise of a full return via a magical crown held by a bunch of wizards that provides the motivation for the quest.
And so, after a spot of quest-prep and an amusing scene in the local adventurers’ recruitment hall, our band of brothers and sisters are off and running, or, rather, motoring. Of course, there are multiple obstacles to overcome and challenges to face and as already noted, not everybody makes it to the end of the journey, but Fetch, at least, does finally get to the wizard’s castle. Where he fights the monster, takes the crown and saves the girl (or so he thinks), all in traditional style and stirringly told. However, there is one small lump of grit in the otherwise smooth narrative, represented by Linda the Werecat who definitely appears as a piece of deus ex machinery here, albeit one that helps explain Larry’s involvement. And, also of course, there is a Final Reveal that is both deeply poignant and utterly shattering for Fetch, as he realises that the phrase ‘all is not what it seems’ applies not only to those he has grown closest to but also to himself.
But what is an old soldier to do, with his battered wooden sword and jaundiced world-view? Progress sweeps the past into museums and the surging crowds that Fetch pushes against throughout the book, yearn for the future. Here a political dimension edges in and Arnold suggests that ultimately the world will be saved not through grandiose feats of monster slaying by some designated if deeply flawed hero, but through one small act of focussed care and kindness after another. And so, despite the pervasive melancholic tone, the final pages offer a slice of optimism with the morning coffee, as Fetch rolls up his sleeves and settles into a different but perhaps more sustainable life.
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