This glamorous desert city is already like something out of fiction. The vast sums of money - both squandered on display and hidden in vaults. The organised crime. The stage shows, the music... even the prostitution. Decadence, corruption, splendor and possibility - all on display and within arm's reach.
The accessibility of sin is at the core of Vegas' appeal to storytellers. With all conventional desires available, creators can weave stories around that one thing that isn't easily achieved. The city may be packed with nubile young ladies, but the most beautiful of all is always the mob king's girlfriend (The Only Girl in the Game) or someone else's new bride ("Indecent Proposal"). There's money on the table, but even more upstairs (Five Against the House). Or it might be something entirely intangible - a soul (Last Call), revenge ("Ocean's 11"), friendship ("The Hangover") or love ("Swingers").
With all that to play for, it is almost disappointing when someone's just gambling for money.
Fortunately, in Matt Forbeck's Vegas Knights (2011), Jackson and Bill don't actually consider it "gambling". Gambling is based on luck. As wizards, there's no luck involved. The two boys are both college students at the University of Michigan in the rare (only) and exclusive (just the two of them) school for wizarding. Despite the warnings of their professor to stay away from Vegas, the two boys are keen on getting some easy cash. The goal: Pick a table, eldritchify the cards, grab the cash, enjoy themselves.
The scheme starts well. Despite their fairly infantile attempts at acting, the two boys are able to alter the cards at a blackjack table and rake in a few thousand dollars. Their celebrations are a college kid's dream. They splurge on new clothes, expensive drinks, beautiful women and brutal hangovers. Plus, their day's work seems to have attracted the casino's attention - day two will be in the VIP room, baby!
However, the VIP room proves a tougher game. The casino's own magical hierarchy is now paying attention, and what begins as a promising game of cards swiftly turns into a farcical chase sequence. The two boys are hounded all over town by spell-toting and gun-toting mobsters. The boys are saved (repeatedly) by the intervention of a foxy Native American/Italian ladyfriend, but they soon learn that they're in well over their heads. The boys are not the only wizards in the world (a fact that they accept with disconcerting readiness), but pretty much everyone of a magical persuasion is hanging out in Vegas. There's something of an occult Cold War going on - a Native American shamanistic tradition glaring daggers at the J.K. Rowling/Lev Grossman style mob warlocks. Naturally, our heroes just blundered into the middle of it.
As the adventure continues, Jackson and Bill peel back more and more layers of adventure. The mysterious lords of the Vegas underworld are revealed as potent historical figures with a sinister agenda. Jackson's whole family is somehow involved, including his missing dad, his long-dead mom and his voodoo-slingin' grandma. Bill is less important (in the eldritch sense), but his dime-thick intellect serves as a conveyor belt for getting the boys into increasingly hazardous situations. They've got allies (mostly the foxy ladyfriend) but enemies keep popping out of the woodwork - again, mostly thanks to Bill's amazing ability to communicate solely in Idiot.
The book spirals towards a predictably apocalyptic conclusion. Someone out there is about to do a Big Thing and the boys need to figure out how to stop it (that is, if they even want to stop it). There's not a lot of drama involved, but there are chase scenes involving zombies, which makes an adequate substitution (like using a cooking spray instead of olive oil - handy, cheap and low-calorie).
There's an overall lack of tension that holds the book back from being truly exciting. The first barrier is a propensity towards info-dumping - both in Jackson's internal monologue and in virtually every conversation with an NPC. This makes the characters' interactions cinematically stilted. Not unlike a Brosnan-era Bond film, dialogue consists of explanatory monologues or carefully crafted sarcastic one-liners.
The second problem is the actual use of magic. There's a sprinkling of the word "quantum" but, predominantly, actual spellcraft consists less of pseudo-science and more of wishing for something really, really hard. Magical battles consist of oppositional wishing. Whoever rolls highest on the d20 wins. Whenever scientific explanations come in ("you can't phase through this floor because it is covered in bacteria") (?!), the friendly engines of disbelief come grinding to a halt. However, the ambiguity of magic does serve as an excellent "get out of jail free card". As the two sprint through Vegas with gunmen at their heels, they spontaneously learn and/or invent whatever they need to get to the next chapter.
Finally, the two protagonists are both kind of assholes. Bill's definitely an asshole, and managed to alienate me within six pages of starting the book when he pulls a gun on his friend as a "joke". Har har. He never manages to redeem himself throughout the course of Vegas Knights, serving less as a goofy sidekick and more as an infinite font of reckless stupidity. Jackson is a more interesting character. As mentioned above, he's got a complex set of family issues, mostly of revealed in the form of mini-biographies and dun-dun-DUN revelations. Jackson's main problem is that he oscillates between floundering and Anomander Rake (and here's how I feel about him). From a pure entertainment level, it is always fun to see a downtrodden character 'grow a pair' and start kicking ass. But Jackson doesn't evolve, he yo-yos - alternatively panicked/useless or calculating/omnipotent. With each cycle, it becomes harder and harder to empathise with him - or to worry about his survival seriously.
Even taking into account the lack of tension, Vegas Knights still has a few great set-piece scenes, especially around the gambling. Mr. Forbeck's invention of "Mojo Poker" may be the best magical contest since Assumption. Above and beyond the pure fun of wizards duelling over the card table, Mr. Forbeck also uses the card game as a vehicle to demonstrate both cunning and sorcery. Nowhere else is Jackson as interesting or the intrigue as compelling.
Also, Vegas Knights may not be particularly dramatic, but it does have a very good sense of fun. Characters jump off (and through) tall buildings, shoot rocket launchers, smack zombies, trigger volcanoes and generally make as much mayhem as humanly or magically possible. Plot point or not, exploding The Strip goes a long way towards keeping the audience's attention. This is Jerry Bruckheimer's Las Vegas and not Tim Powers'.
Mr. Forbeck also set the groundwork for a very interesting, if not wholly unique, "secret history" sort of world. The various forms and figures of warlockery provide an open-ended basis for further exploration. Las Vegas may be central to this particular battle, but there are references to other magical hotspots, like New Orleans, where the war could continue.
Vegas Knights has a core handful of intriguing scenes surrounded by a lot of self-consciously blockbuster icing. The latter, as crowd-pleasing as it is, is a shame. The book has the potential to be tense, low-key and subtle, but instead opts for brash flamboyance. Not unlike the city itself (which seems to be doing pretty well out of it).
Vegas Knights is out now from Angry Robot. You can try out a five chapter free sample on the author's website.