Tim Powers is pretty well-known in the sf community, but it still surprises me that his name isn’t even more widely circulated. Two of the hottest sub-genres of speculative fiction these days are steampunk and urban fantasy. Powers’ 1983 novel The Anubis Gates is considered a foundational text of the former, and this novel should probably be considered a foundational text of the latter.
The novel mixes the mythic history of the rapid growth of Las Vegas, which is closely tied to Bugsy Siegel and the mafia, with the superstitions of chronic gamblers and playing cards’ roots as tarot cards. In Powers' world, luck and probability can be manipulated under the right conditions, and enacting certain rituals can elevate some players and destroy others. In the late 1940s Scott Crane’s father enters a contest to take the metaphysical position of “king” of Las Vegas from Bugsy and chooses to sacrifice his sons. Scott escapes and a wily cardshark named Ozzie adopts him. In 1969, Scott loses his soul in a magical card game with a tarot deck. In the present, this debt has come due, but a desperate cancer patient named Archimedes Mavroanos seeks Scott out when he learns that probability seems to bend around him. The two go on a quest to Vegas to save Scott’s soul. And a whole bunch of other stuff happens.
The first hundred pages of this novel were really irresistible. Powers uses the simple yet propelling prose of noir fiction while also creating the sense of a rich and complex magical world with its own rules just beneath the surface. That sense of a secret world is the essence of urban fantasy, and I haven’t seen anyone but Neil Gaiman do it better than Powers does here.
The great momentum of the opening chapters does fade, however, as Powers’ plot gets increasingly complex and more and more characters join the fray. My plot synopsis didn’t even touch Scott’s adopted sister and her family, Scott’s zombified brother, Scott’s dead wife, the hapless assassin, various fortune-tellers, or the boy raised in a giant Skinner-box to be the greatest gambler ever. These are all great ideas, but they also get in the way of the plot, and the novel really loses its momentum in the second half. And, it all comes together just a little too neatly in the end. It’s a very fun book that creates a compelling world of magic within our own, but a slimmer, more efficient version could have been truly great. Still, Last Call is nearly so.