The weekend before vacation, I was very cranky and wanted to read something that I knew wouldn’t annoy me. Since Tim Powers’ Last Call is one of my favorite books and part of my fantasy conversion kit, but I hadn’t read it for ages, it seemed like a useful as well as a reliable choice.
This is such a good book. It has great characters; rich, detailed, textured worldbuilding; and a plot that spins out of both of these in a logical, fitting, and yet surprising fashion. More, I think it was a good choice for the conversion kit, since it sets out its central problem pretty early. By the end of the Prologue, we know that Georges Leon is the mythic King of the American West and was conducting a ritual to take over the body of his younger son (there are fantasy novels that would make you wait for the purpose of that ritual until two-thirds of the way through). The ritual failed, and he now expects his son to become his rival. By the end of Part I we know the core of the plot, the peril our protagonist (his son) is in. I think in that sense, it’s a good choice for people new to the genre: though the subject matter may be unfamiliar, the direction of the plot is clear.
A good deal of the subject matter might be familiar, as well, since the one-line description of Last Call is “a secret history of the Fisher King in Las Vegas with Poker.” When the book came out in 1992, the Fisher King part of that description was likely the most familiar mythological reference, but the recent popularity of poker might be giving it some competition. There’s almost certainly some aspect of the book that will resonate, with references to everything from T.S. Eliot, chaos theory, and Vietnamese myth—but never in a cryptic or unexplained way. It’s the kind of story where everything—the direction a car turns, the way the moon looks, and particularly the fall of the cards—is significant, and I really enjoy the texture this gives the book.
Last Call is an absorbing, complex and entertaining book whose strong ideas are more than matched by its strong characters. I’m very glad to re-read it and find it’s still one of my favorites.
[Expiration Date is Tim Powers doing ghosts, telephones, and Thomas Edison; Earthquake Weather brings together characters from both Expiration Date and Last Call, plus completely new characters. Unfortunately I don’t love either of them, but they’re there if you want them.]