Last Call

April 2nd, 2006

This is, I’m afraid, another book to which I had been oversold. For years, folks have been trying to get me to read this book. Due to the recommendation of countless friends and even family, it’s been on my to-buy list for years and years, but through some confluence of misfortune, I never saw a copy until I stumbled on a trade paper version this past fall. With my friends all buzzing about a local Texas Hold’em tournament and forcing me to actually learn how to play that variant (cards and myself do not exactly get along, in general), I figured there would seldom be a better time to read this one. I’ve seen Last Call described as magical realism with Poker, and that’s as succinct a summary as any. Powers describes a world to us that is, to the eyes of anyone not intimately involved with cards and games of chance, indistinguishable from our own. To a small selection of gamblers, hustlers, and card readers, however, ours is a world with magic governing chance, wealth, and fertility just under the surface of everyday events. Governed by a strict hierarchy of archetypes and divinities, the power and resources of that world can be tapped into by even the unknowing through the medium of a card game, and those who are aware of this potential can use it to claim places in that hierarchy for themself…even that of King. In the first half of the twentieth century, a young Frenchman with a talent for math and an interest in cards named Georges Lyon discovered the underlying principles I describe above and realized that, in the right place and having made the right sacrifices, he could make himself King. So he moved to Las Vegas, married, had two sons, and did what he had to do…whatever he had to do…to accomplish that goal. His wife, having seen the sacrifice of her firstborn to Georges’ cause, steps in to remove Scotty, their second son, before he too is lost. She gets Scotty away, but Lyon finds other ways to maintain his kingship, and does so for forty years… Scott, meanwhile, is raised by a wily old card player named Ozzy Crane. He teaches him how to win at Poker, and how sometimes, when the smoke swirls just so and your drink doesn’t quite seem level, you shouldn’t try to win. When Scott’s old enough, they tour the West country together, going from regular game to regular game during “the season” and winning enough to support him and his adopted sister, Diana. Scott grows up not knowing who his real father is, but inherits his strong will and stubbornness. He defies Ozzie’s advice and plays in a game on a boat on Lake Mead. He makes his bet even though all the signs and conditions are what Ozzie warned against, and he wins the hand. But unknowingly, in winning the hand, he’s lost his future, and twenty years later, the King will come to claim it. This is a quick-paced, immersive book, with well-developed characters and interesting themes; but despite all that it didn’t entirely work for me, and it’s hard to say exactly why. Maybe it’s my vague dislike for card games, or my specific and highly personal fatigue for Tarot card-themed SF, but these or other vagaries of my nature kept me from having that “Oh, wow” experience that this book seems to have given to so many others. There were things I particularly liked, like Scott’s “sidekick” Arky, whose stubborn humor and bizarre faith in chaos made for an interesting thread through the story, but I think ultimately I just went into this book with my expectations set too high. I seem to be able to trick myself into enjoying movies despite such things, but I think that skill has a ways to come before I can apply it to books. Regardless, to those of you without my hangups and misgivings, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. Check it out.

2 Responses to “Last Call”

  1. mrlost says:

    I read it for different reasons, mostly because of a rpg that I’d recently bought. Damn fine book all told, and I really loved that Fat man. I’ve got something of a math background and this book is just spooky with math, especially the theoretical stuff.

    Nice review, I must say I was trying to remember what Scotts father’s name was, and thanks for the reminder.


  2. Skwid says:

    Thanks for stopping by, PK. The introduction of the Fat Man (and his symbology) was definitely one of those quiet grin moments.

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