Tim Powers's Last Call: a mind-altering journey into superstition, Vegas style

I just got through re-reading Tim Power's World Fantasy Award-winning 1996 novel Last Call, which is truly one of the triumphs of modern fantasy literature. Powers, one of Philip K Dick's three proteges (the others are James Blaylock and KW Jeter), is a tremendous writer, and his whole catalog deserves your attention, but even against the field of standout Powers novels, Last Call stands out further.

Last Call's premise, at its core, is that Bugsy Siegel built Las Vegas in order to become a living avatar of the Fisher King, but that he was prevented by doing this when a French mystic named Georges Leon assassinated him, stole his head from the morgue, tossed it into Lake Mead, and set about turning his sons into mindless soldiers in his mystic army by conducting dark rituals involving a handpainted Tarot deck that could drive you mad.

One of Leon's sons survives, though he loses his eye to his father's violence, and his dying mother smuggles him away from his father and tosses him, blindly, over the transom of a passing yacht on a trailer. He is found by a professional gambler, Ozzie Crane, who raises Scott as his foster son, and later adopts another girl, Diana, and raises her as his foster sister. From Ozzie, Scott learns of the gambler's mysticisms and superstitions: fold out your hand when the smoke gathers in the middle of the table or the drinks in the glass start to sit off-level, lest you buy or sell more than what's in the pot. Twenty years later, Scott -- now a professional gambler -- ignores Ozzie's pleas to stay clear of a game played on a houseboat on Lake Mead ("You want to play on tame water? Are you crazy?") and finds himself playing a queer sort of poker with 13 players and a deck of Tarot cards, playing (he later learns) against his own biological father, who has taken over the body of the game's host, and who is using the game to steal the bodies of more people so that he can attain true immortality.

This is a book that swirls with mysticism and resonances: everyday superstition, Sumerian and Egyptian religious doctrine, the Tarot and Carl Jung's archetypes, and the Arthurian mythos. Powers is clearly in some way the spiritual son of Philip K Dick (he certainly tells some pretty awesomely hilarious and terrifying stories about being Dick's confidante, driver, helper, and rescuer) and he's got Dick's knack for imagining catastrophically superstitious worlds where you're never sure who is the madman and who is the sage. He's also got Dick's flair for the bizarre, the sense that he's tapped into something very deep in the lived human experience of weird. But Powers is an infinitely better writer than Dick ever was: better at plot, characters and dialog.

Last Call is the first of three loosely joined books, the next two being Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather, and all three are brilliant in their own way, but Last Call remains my favorite. I caught up with it again via the audiobook, which is available as a DRM-free audio CD read by Bronson Pinchot (who is a surprisingly good and subtle audiobook voice-actor).

Last Call


  1. …he certainly tells some pretty awesomely hilarious and terrifying stories about being Dick’s confidante, driver, helper, and rescuer…

    References, Cory, we need references! I’d love to read those if they’re in print.

    I’ve read this book and some of his others. I’ve enjoyed them, but for some reason they don’t stick with me (for example, I really didn’t remember any of the plot, although I know I enjoyed it at the time).

    PKD, on the other hand, sticks with me.

    1. Sorry to say that AFAIK Tim has never published his PKD memoirs. But they make for a hell of a dinner conversation.

  2. The boat doesn’t belong to Ozzie; he uses magic to find Scott and rescue him.

    It is one of my absolute favorite books of all time, the sort I buy copies of just to give them away.

  3. I would equally call him a spiritual heir to Lovecraft.  Unlike typical horror writers, Power’s books always give the impression that the madness and death are hidden just out of sight, just in the next shadow, behind everything unseen, never resting, more ancient and indefatigable than anything our puny minds can manage.  “Declare” for example is the first book in a long while that kept me jumpy and up at night for ages after reading.  Just brilliant.  

  4. Good call Cory!

    Tim Powers has an incredible ability to take the everyday, and give it that little twist.  (He’s similar to Dick in that regard.)  Last Call’s bizarre mix of the supernatural, and natural world is very paranoia inducing, and has stuck with me for years.

  5. Good call!  This is my favorite Powers novel too. It’s the kind of book that makes the whole world look a little different and weirder when you’ve finished reading it.

    Maybe a “Spoilers Ahead” early in your review would be a good idea for people who haven’t read it yet.

  6. Love the little jokes, too. Wasn’t his the book where the low-rider gang drove El Camino pickups with the “El C” knocked off, and called themselves the “Amino Acids”?

  7. Well, now I know where the french comic books Arcane Majeur get their inspiration from. Magic tarot cards, mystical power of gambling, mystical origin for Las Vegas…

  8. I want to recommend his early books, like An Epitaph in Rust, The Drawing of The Dark (who wouldn’t like a book where beer is the hero) and The Anubis Gates. I think Anubis Gates is his best, I get a bit numbed by his later books where “living forever” is the constant goal.

    – Thomas

    1. Yeah, but when “living forever” is powered by taking ice-baths, drinking atomic-fireball-candy-infused-water and being surrounded by electronic toy pigs — it’s hard to resist the mentality that creates it.

  9. I avoided Tim Powers for years, on the erroneous assumption that he wrote military-SF (my mis-firing brain somehow connected his “The Anubis Gates” to the Bladerunner reference “c-beams glittering in the dark at the Tannhauser gate” and created military-SF out of it. WTF?).

    About 5 years ago I found “Last Call” in a discount-store trade-PB pile for $2, and took it home, loved it, and loaned to a friend who promptly lost it in a move.

    But I’ve now got a whole bunch of other Powers books — including the marvelous and decidely-non-military-SF Anubis Gates. I wish I had found them sooner.

    1.  Similarly I spent years avoiding Gene Wolfe’s _The Book of the New Sun_ because titles like _The Shadow of the Torturer_ sounded like so cheesy.

      And then when I finally read them… such treasures.

  10. Great call, Cory. The whole Fisher King trilogy is terrific, and now I have to read them again. …Except that the Illuminatus! trilogy is also in the queue. Decisions decisions.

  11. Just sticking my head up to nominate ‘Declare’ as my favorite Tim Powers book – a cold war spy novel in the mode of Le Carre, but with all the usual Tim Powers obsessions. It’s just wonderful.

  12. I loved this book, though perhaps I liked it so much because I read it while I was taking a probability course. I liked Anubis Gates, better, ultimately, but this one was dang good.

  13. Don’t forget that the real On Stranger Tides was one of Powers’ books as well. I’m definitely going to have to backtrack through the collection again…

  14. No love for Powers’  only hard SF novel afaik, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace?  I read it before any of his others and liked it quite a bit — certainly more than Forsake the Sky. I’m a huge fan of all of Tim’s work; as with Jack Vance, I reread something of his every few years.

  15. What I love about Last Call is that there are rules, but you don’t get told them immediately. It’s secret history, that sense of figuring things out or having them figured out for you as you go along. You aren’t omniscient as the reader. 

  16. A great recommendation! The book gets inside your head in some ways – I found myself mentally agreeing with the “explanation” given for Christmas trees being grown in reservations under high-tension power lines. Of course they are! It’s hydroelectric power! And the trees are meant to be … cut … down … wait a minute.

  17. Agreed.
    I’ve been hooked on Powers since I read “The Anubis Gates” as a teen. Recently reread that as well, and was surprised at how well it had aged.

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