Last Call, Tim Powers

Avon, 1992 (2005 reprint), 535 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-380-71557-2

Nowadays, it’s impossible to read every interesting author out there. The pace of publishing makes it tough to keep up with the current stuff, let alone try to dig back what’s been missed. But there’s an odd comfort in knowing about pockets of unread excellence: The assurance that if ever things turn sour and the current stuff sucks, there’s always a bunch of surefire classics to read. (That, incidentally, explains the unread stack of Michael Connelly novels in my library) So it is with Tim Powers, award-winning fantasy writer: I hadn’t read anything by him before Last Call , but frequent recommendations had led me to accumulate a number of his books in the vague hope that someday, I’d get around to his stuff.

Well, that day arrived this month as I cracked open Last Call and was immediately sucked into a muscular, densely-packed prose serving a story of hardboiled contemporary magic. Within pages, I knew that the recommendations were right: I could sink in the rest of the novel knowing fully well that I was in the hands of a master.

A dense novel like Last Call is always problematic to summarize, but you can’t go wrong by starting with the cards. Today’s playing cards are fun things, but they really date back to the original tarot card set. In this novel, Powers uses the cards as doorway to an occult world that permeate ours, and where sufficiently sensitive (or trained) characters can perceive and use those portents. Powers’ Las Vegas is where the real meets the not-so-real, where a vast battle will take place to crown a new king of the land.

Poker player Scott Crane is one such pretender to the throne, perhaps the best one of the lot. His origins are too fantastic to describe properly, and his current situation is almost desperate. After nearly forgetting almost everything he’s known about the mysterious power of cards, he finds himself brought back into the game through a series of events that owe as much to thrillers than to fantasy.

There are a lot of things to love about Last Call: The scrumptious writing, the narrative drive and the sharp characters are only three of them. But the real star of the story is really the way Powers manages to cram an entire mythology within 1990-era California and Nevada, in a way that guns are as important as what the cards will tell you. Ghosts and gangsters, family and fate all intersect, and the mixture is a great deal more interesting than anything else on the fantasy shelves. This, I want to shout, is what real fantasy feels like, not the addled sword-and-sorcery ripoffs that have come to define the genre.

It’s also amusing to realize that the territory explored by Powers is not dissimilar to the one covered in cheap horror films, but feels freed from the artificial shackles of too-pat mythologies or the limited imaginations of screenwriters. There are scenes of uncommon power in Last Call, simultaneously more subtle and more gripping that the usual explosions of CGI demons that seem so prevalent in the “modern” contemporary fantasy films. (There is, in particular, a scene in which Crane frightens a tarot reader beyond reason and while I’m not sure the same scene would work on-screen, it’s deliciously effective on the page.) It helps that Powers’ written style is densely packed with details, while retaining an essential clarity of prose.

As good as it is, Last Call is not without its particular problems. Some of the last-half characters feel a bit extraneous, and the complexity of the final twists can make anyone if Powers isn’t playing card tricks in the dark for an ingrate audience. In much of the same way, Powers’ straightforward prose style can be misleading: readers may be tempted to rush forward based on sheers forward momentum, but I found that the book worked far better when I deliberately limited my reading speed to truly capture the feel of the story.

Though fantasy generally isn’t my genre, Last Call has the overall appeal of a minor classic. Suddenly, I find myself at the edge of another good and reassuring pool of unread books. I may be late at the Tim Powers party, but consider this: I’m assured of at least eight other books to consider. Expiration Date is next, with Earthquake Weather to follow.

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