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It would be inaccurate, though not entirely untrue, to describe Michael Kardos’ new novel as a slow burner. Kardos is an author of immense, if somewhat unappreciated, talent who is incapable of writing badly, so it would be unfair to say that not much happens in the first two-thirds of the book. Think of one of those domino tricks where you watch the construction of the board before a finger is flicked and a pattern of explosive tumbling emerges. Better yet, picture a roller coaster as it rises slowly up the rail to the inevitable crest before dropping into a seemingly uncontrolled free fall. BLUFF is similar, but not identical, given that you will be faced with the prospect of reading several pages with your hands over your eyes.

This is a book about magic, specifically “close-up magic.” We’ve all seen it. The most basic form of it is usually performed by a creepy uncle who shows you a silver dollar, makes it disappear, and then leans toward you and pulls it out of your ear (hopefully). BLUFF is narrated by Natalie Webb, a close-up magician who is effectively a has-been in her late 20s. It’s been quite a fall for Natalie, who won the World of Magic competition at 18 before almost immediately engaging in a bit of poor judgment and doubling down on it.

"This is my favorite type of book. I had no idea what was going to happen and repeatedly guessed incorrectly."

As the novel opens, Natalie is living in a posterior-end apartment in the posterior end of New Jersey and once again --- though understandably --- lets her temper get the better of her. She’s in a position where she has too much month left at the end of the money when in desperation she pitches an idea for an article to a magazine editor. It involves interviewing a card shark on the art of cheating. Natalie locates the perfect subject after a false start, but receives an offer in return. The shark has a plan to cheat the table at a private high roller poker game. It is not something that Natalie does or is willing to do, but the lure of the payoff --- more than she has ever made for a single performance, or even for the totality of her performances --- is too good to pass up.

What we also learn as the narrative unfolds is that the successful execution of the plan will permit Natalie to gain a large measure of revenge from a man who, as much as anyone, ruined her life well over a decade before. Natalie can’t resist, even though she should. What she will discover is that before a fateful evening plays out, she will need to use every trick she knows and every ability she has to improvise and react to what is about to occur if she is to survive the night, let alone emerge intact. However, what is clear from the first page is that Natalie, for all of her weaknesses, is a survivor. When you’re reading BLUFF, bet on Natalie. But you cut the cards.

This is my favorite type of book. I had no idea what was going to happen and repeatedly guessed incorrectly. Anyone who has ever wondered about how a card trick was done or where that coin (or pigeon or rabbit) went will love BLUFF. But be prepared for the final third of the book. There are some tricks from which you don’t come back.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 6, 2018

by Michael Kardos

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Mysterious Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802128041
  • ISBN-13: 9780802128041