Saturday, 28 June 2014

Review: Last Call by Tim Powers

Las Vegas is a strange city from all accounts. A place of dreams with little reality underneath, where tourists are disorientated by the fact the hotels cut them off from the outside world, the tables never close and the windows don't open wide enough for the man who's lost everything to jump.

This is the world Last Call inhabits, a world of gambling, obsession and magic. The protagonist is Scott Crane, a gambler who hasn't played poker for 20 years, after losing badly at an occult game called Assumption in '69. As he is dragged back into the shady world ruled by the stranger end of probability and cards his life, already breaking, falls apart completely.

Obsession is the key to the novel; every character from the hitmen chasing Crane to the gamblers who inhabit the world he's forced into and beyond is touched somehow, broken by their obsessions and their connections to the strange otherworld that hides under mainstream Americana. Powers makes no bones about how insidious the world under the mainstream is, we see it reach out to little boys and infect ordinary life far too easily. We see inventive uses of magical power, the way cigarette smoke pools during a card game becomes mystical for instance, as does the way cards are dealt. Poker hands become ways to describe people's souls, places become part of people; water becomes 'tamed'.

The other side of this is that magic does not just come from the cards or obsessions, the book links back to older ideas, exploring the meaning of the tarot and how it connects to ideas of pre-Christian divinity. In particular Last Call takes the idea of the moon goddess very seriously, presenting invocations of Isis and her sister goddesses as being the necessary way to change the situation in the city. As women compete for the moon goddess' power they clash with powers as terrible and restrictive as those wielded by the obsessive gamblers, being forced to adopt an archetype and the strictures it brings.

Powers' worlds are always deep and strange and the one in Last Call is no different. This is not an easy book to get into, the style is thick and fast and Powers makes little attempt to slow the pace to appeal to the casual reader. He seems to have an obsession with waves and crystallisation, something that appears in The Stress of Her Regard and Declare as well as Last Call (enough to make me wonder if one day a connecting novel would be possible). He plays this obsession well though, using it in interesting ways as the plot progresses; tying to it patterns and symbols.

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