Adapting a 19th Century Russian fable into a contemporary setting, albeit one 30 some years back in the hey-days of the early eighties, and from a first-time author no less, can be considered a gamble. With Queen Of Spades, Michael Shou-Yung Shum doubles down and beats the house. And as much as I would like for that to be the last gambling metaphor of the review, the speed and tone of the book simply will not allow me to throw down markers on Odd when the roulette wheel will definitely come up Even. Shum, you see, has a way of stacking the deck in his favor.
Set in a unique casino in the Pacific Northwest, Queen Of Spades focuses on a new dealer and his quest to understand the system of Countess, a legend in those parts who only plays the high-stake tables. Shum deals in other players, a dying pit boss, a sad-sack gambler, the ex-wife attending 12-step recovery meetings, a palm-reading teen among others, whose tales are just as unique to that of the dealt hand. More Robert Altman than Woody Allen, although Shum plays tight with themes of both humor and friendship, Shum focuses on his cast of characters, ensuring the prime players are available for the climatic big deal. By the end of that hand, and the read, when all players have called, a few of those folded tales become lost among the victory of others, which is a slight problem that is easily forgotten and forgiven.
Shum has a light, easy tone making Queen Of Spades a fun read not only through his narrative, but also as he picks and tempts with the theory of the gamble, the strategy behind the play, and how luck envelops it all.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Forest Avenue Press for dealing me into this well-played round. I feel like a winner.