Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review - Last Call

Last Call
by Tim Powers
1993 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Scott Crane was a professional poker player. Twenty years ago he played a unique style of poker in a high stakes game on Lake Meade but he didn't realize how high the stakes really were. There's magic in the cards and the best gamblers know that manipulating their patterns can bring great changes into the world. Now the marker is due and Scott is pulled back into the world of high stakes cards despite the fact that death is stalking him. His family has hidden from him since that game and he seeks them out to change the fate that has been dealt.

To touch on something that I'm sure bothers only me as a reader, Last Call is the only fiction book I've ever read that handled games correctly and it did it correctly while heading straight through the areas that are usually prone to fallacies by authors. Take poker, for example. A skilled poker player isn't revealed in one single hand. Writers like that dramatic final showdown where the hero happens to draw a hand slightly better than the high hand the villain has but in one hand of poker that is coincidence not skill. Real ability comes into play across dozens, if not hundreds, of hands. Powers knows that and uses that in the novel.

The other thing is when creating a fictional game writers tend to include an all or nothing goal for the hero to achieve so that victory will be dependent on them (see Quiddich in the Harry Potter series) or alternatively pile on overly complicated details to make it "more realistic" (see The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks). The variant of poker used for the mystical poker tournaments in Last Call is brilliant. The concept is that the players receive less than a full hand and must buy each others hands to build a better poker hand. While it is more complex it is not needlessly so; it is exactly the kind of variant that I could see experts playing since it makes their skills at manipulating the bidding and judging even more important. There is an all or nothing option but Powers makes the point that using it (from a game play standpoint at least) is a bad idea.

That's the kind of care that Powers put into crafting his story. Last Call is a massively complicated novel and events spin out fast but Powers never loses track of anything. I was extremely impressed at how well he managed to juggle the plot points and keep things clear to the reader. There are a half dozen factions who have business with Crane in one way or another and a few more at odds with at least one of them and the tension doesn't let up.

I do not like talking about plot elements deeper in than one-third of the way through a book. Still the climax of Last Call is so clever that I have to mention it. I can't say what it was or why it was so brilliant, it just is. I can promise you that the resolution to Scott Crane's problems is not the obvious one that I spent the majority of the book dreading. I was pleasantly surprised when the book made that final turn into the climax.

In addition Powers avoids explaining things too deeply. There's magic and tarot at the heart of Last Call but there's also details regarding which characters possess what information. Powers hoards this information; characters do not typically spend a chapter explaining things to each other. In fact at several points in the novel characters have become aware of things they didn't know before because presumably they had things that the reader already knew explained "off camera". So despite being a fairly heavy book it never feels padded.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention what a wonderful job Powers does with painting his characters. There are a lot of broken people populating Last Call each of whom is broken in a unique way that allows them to play off each other whether they're haunted, gluttonous beyond reason, ruthless, obsessed with masculinity, or seeing patterns in everything. It's a cast that I hated to see go at the end of the story because it was so interesting to see what they do next.

The worst thing I can say about Last Call is that it isn't a deep book. It wears its messages on its sleeve and there are no hidden philisophical layers. It won't be pondered over for generations to come or debated endlessly. On the other hand it is still a great peice of storytelling and if the worst thing I can say is that Tim Powers didn't attempt something that a lot of authors fail badly at then he's done everything right. I'll take an interesting plot over ham-handed philosphy any day of the week.