by Matt Forbeck
Review by Drew Bittner
Angry Robot Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780857660855
Date: 29 March 2011 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
From SFRevu's John Berlyne: Matt Forbeck is a relatively name new to me or was until the appearance of his recent, much lauded Angry Robot release, Amortals. If you're a fan of Black Library, you'll know Forbeck as the author of four novels in the Blood Bowl series and if you're a RPGer he'll be familiar to you as the creator of Brave New World and the author of tonnes of gaming resources. He is clearly a creative force to be reckoned with and so hats off to Angry Robot for extending Forbeck's repertoire with a second novel Vegas Knights, which given that I am a huge fan of Tim Powers' Vegas fantasy Last Call, rather appeals to me!
"The two magicians came to take Vegas. Now Vegas is taking them back. When two college freshman decide to use Spring Break to wage a magic assault on the gambling tables of Las Vegas, little can they imagine that Vegas harbours a dark magical secret of its own! The whole place is run by magic, and a long-dead legend is in charge."
In Matt Forbeck's Vegas Knights, Luke and his best friend Bill come to Las Vegas with a plan. They're going to take the casinos to the cleaners, using their fledgling ability to manipulate probability. In other words: magic.
Things seem to go well. They rack up some impressive wins, despite the scrutiny of the pit bosses, and are shown to the VIP lounge at Bootleggers, the Roaring Chicago-themed casino they've chosen as their first stop. When the blackjack table turns against them, however, Luke and Bill realize they're in way over their heads. See, the casinos know about magic too...
With help from the beautiful Powi Strega, a Native American with magic of her own, the boys manage to escape a dangerous trap set by Benito Gaviota, chief of security at Bootleggers (as well as the top lieutenant to the man who really runs Vegas). Things take an odd turn when they get a job offer and the world is set at their feet. But offers like this always come with a price attached.
Luke reaches out to a contact he never expected to need, while Bill plunges into the heady world of Vegas magic. When the true stakes are revealed, however, Luke and Bill discover that the dangers of Vegas are much greater than they could have imagined, and the price demanded might be no less than their lives.
Matt Forbeck creates a fast-paced and deeply engaging story, as Luke and Bill go from cocky recklessness (at least on Bill's part) to terror to complacency to... well, the endgame. The two are almost classic wannabes, with Luke more cautious than Bill and yet in greater need of money; Bill is more flashy and more self-assured, but Luke's raw talent vastly outshines Bill's. Luke, as our main protagonist, also has unresolved family issues that he hopes to straighten out while in town.
Every hero is measured by his villains, and Forbeck has created some great villains here. Gaviota is both friend and enemy to the boys, with many secrets of his own (and the last one is a real surprise). Along with the hulking Misha, he represents the public face of Las Vegas's true mastermind (a plot point I won't spoil because it's so well done); he's a guy who exudes danger as well as charisma and is very well-written. There are schemes within schemes going on, and Luke and Bill have the bad luck to get caught up at just the wrong time.
Likewise, they have help in the form of Powi (who takes pity on two clueless knuckleheads) and her own family, who run the Thunderbird casino. The Native American community in Vegas is in a cold war against the cabal of magicians who run the Strip. With Luke especially in the mix, matters are coming to a head and a final reckoning is inevitable. Forbeck shows a flair for writing breathtaking action scenes, as these two powerful magical and mundane forces collide.
The setting is also given a chance to shine, with the glamour of the city contrasted with its ordinary suburbs and the grime lurking under the dazzling neon. Forbeck writes it like a man who's been there and seen what the city has to offer.
Although the promotional tagline ("Oceans Eleven Meets Harry Potter") is a bit deceiving, the story itself delivers rock solid entertainment with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing up to the last page.
With thanks to SFRevu's John Berlyne for the great introduction!