I recently finished reading Tim Powers' Last Call. This was a book I had been meaning to read for a while. I had enjoyed The Anubis Gates, and the culture of high-stakes gambling is a fertile area for fiction.
And there is much to enjoy in Last Call. Powers successfully sneaks a fantasy world into a realistic contemporary setting. The premise of the book posits, pretty much, that every serious poker player in the Las Vegas area. is a mystic of sorts, at play with archetypes found in the Tarot. This is completely bonkers, but you can find yourself buying into it before you even realize it. Also appreciated is the way Powers piles on characters, creating a rich tapestry of ne'er-do-wells and eccentrics.
Still, while I read with some pleasure, there was a way in which I couldn't get behind the story, something that left me cold. Some spoilers follow, if you're concerned about that sort of thing.
The protagonist, Scott Crane, is an ex-gambler who lost his body and really his soul too in a game called Assumption twenty years in the past. The man who won it from him has been preparing to take him over, and misfortunes have been coming his way. One of these misfortunes is the death of his wife Susan, who suffered a fatal heart attack and whose death he covered up while falling into a drunken stupor.
Susan persists as a wraith in his life as he goes on a quest to save himself. Along the way he's also trying to save his adopted sister, with the help of their gambler stepfather. Around halfway through the novel the sister, Diana, muses that she had grown up hoping that Scott would marry her, and resented his marrying someone else. And for me I think that's when the book's spell started to break.
Susan continues to talk to Scott on the phone, trying to dissuade him from his quest. When he drinks, he not only sees her but gets intimate with her. It's implied that the spectral woman he interacts with isn't actually his dead wife. But in a way it doesn't matter. She's a burden. In life we lose people ometimes through death and sometimes in other ways. We have to move on and let them go. But there's something more vicious at work here.
Diana doesn't just recall a passing crush on her brother. The two actually do fall in love. While they aren't blood relatives, the lack of blood relation is the only thing separating them from a villain shown to be evil because he wants to get it on with his own half-sister. Okay, so, hypocrisy. So what? But as Scott and Diana grow closer together (the lack of an actual sex scene between the two is a mercy) he kicks his dead wife like a bad habit while her late husband and the father of her sons fades from memory. The sorcerous game to be King and Queen brings with it some definite royal failings.
I'd compare and contrast Last Call with Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Powers and Gaiman are both wearing Jungian hats. Both create hard luck heroes who turn out to be more than they appear. And in both cases, the protagonists are widowers. But in American Gods, there's an enduring love between Shadow and Laura, and she's a wild card instead of an evil. That's what I would call getting it right.