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Five murdered poker players from different eras are brought back from the dead for one last tournament. The prize is life itself.

The book opens with Wild Bill Hickok finding himself pulled from the grave, his bones clothing themselves with flesh and the flesh with clothes. The reader follows along with Bill as he tries to work out what's going on and why he feels an urge to go to Atlantic City, although the reader has an advantage over him in being able to recognise the present day and just how much time has passed. Another four men from different time periods have the same experience, although one is so recently dead that he is able to convince friends and family that he'd been kidnapped and held incommunicado for several years. As they gradually assemble, they discover that they have been revived for the greatest poker tournament in history - between the greatest players, no matter when they lived.

The result is an atmospheric blend of ghost story and mystery, with some superb world-building going into the strange casino that has revived the men. The characters are well developed, and it's a joy to watch their interaction, and their different reactions to the present day. Those reactions are driven in part by their different reasons for wanting the prize; not just a new life in a recreated body, but what they want to do with that life. A chance at love, a chance at revenge, fascination with this new world they find themselves in... Even for the four losers, their short time walking the earth again allows them to do at least a little of what was left undone.

A lovely short ghost novel for Halloween, with the emphasis on the human soul rather than on horror.


direct from Book View Cafe, with excerpts available
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79) Pati Nagle - Pet Noir

Note: I received a review copy of this through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Short fix-up novel about a genetically engineered cat whose creation is commissioned by the security chief of a large space station. The chief wants an undercover agent who'll be overlooked by criminals who might be suspicious of humanoids. A Maine Coon who's been genetically engineered to have human level intelligence, opposable thumbs, and a tongue that can wrap itself around human language is a useful thing to have loitering around fast food outlets and in cargo holds, picking up the gossip. An ordinary-looking cat won't be suspected because the high cost of gengineered animals means they're still rare -- but it's a price that's worth it for someone who wants to bust a drug-smuggling ring.

The book is structured as a series of short stories covering the first year or so of Leon's life, a first person retrospective from the day the Chief collects a know-all kitten from the labs to a year or so later, when Leon's experienced enough to understand how very inexperienced and naive he was that day. The general tone is that of a hard-boiled detective story, only here the hard-boiled tone is distinctly feline-flavoured and the setting is futuristic.

It's a lot of fun following Leon's emotional and intellectual development alongside his cases, and the cases themselves mostly make good stories. There are some good observations of feline behaviour worked into this. Leon's mostly plausible as a portrait of a cat with boosted intelligence, and his relationship with his human partner Devin, a mix of self-centredness and genuine affection after a rocky start, works well. However, there are two flaws which badly broke suspension of disbelief for me.

The first is that Leon is not just super intelligent, at 4 weeks old he speaks fluent English and he's already showing a better grasp of human culture than a human ten year old. Yes, cats develop much faster, but there hasn't been time for him to physically assimilate that amount of information, even if he does spend all day in front of the tv.

The second is that Leon speaks to other, unenhanced animals, who appear to be also human level intelligence in their conversation, even if they're speaking in cat rather than English, which rather undermines the point of him being genetically engineered for human level intelligence. There also appears to be a single human-level language across at least three species who are not regarded as fully sentient by the humans and other sentient species on the station. It felt as if the author was trying to appeal to readers who like to think of their cats as being just little humans in fur coats.

One of the things I did like about the book is that it touches on the ethics of uplifted animals. It's a very light touch, and anything stronger would have unbalanced the book, but it's made clear that Leon is under an indentured contract and is required to pay off the costs of his creation by working for whoever owns the contract. He's effectively the property of Gamma Station Security for several years, and he's unimpressed by this.

Overall, something of a mixed bag. It's a fun light read, and has some laugh out loud moments, but there are some niggles which mean I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. A free sample consisting of the prologue and first chapter are available for download at Book View Cafe, which will give you a reasonable idea of the style.

LibraryThing entry

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julesjones

August 2017

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