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Spell Games by T.A. Pratt4 stars

Buy from IndieBoundSpell Games is the best and most involving of the Marla Mason novels to date. Like the confidence games that supply it with its premise, Pratt’s story lures you in with good-natured camaraderie, softens you up with plenty of humor and charm, then — pow — delivers the sucker punch. Readers who have been following this series from its inception have found a rare ensemble of characters of whom we’ve grown deeply fond. We only realize how fond when we see just how high the stakes have gotten, and how much they stand to lose — and do lose. This book is the best kind of escapism, offering a deft blend of suspense, comedy and tragedy, while saying a thing or two about the basest aspects of human nature and the abuse of trust. Welcome to the A-list, Tim Pratt. 

Opening right at the moment Dead Reign ends, the story reunites Marla with her long-estranged big brother Jason, who earns his living unapologetically as the kind of old-school grifter who probably could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s some bad history between the two siblings, but Marla allows a tentative mending of fences, trying to remember the big brother she loved as a kid before things went stupendously sour. 

Jason has come to Felport, he says, both to look Marla up and to run a con on a pitifully gullible old-money tycoon who desperately wants to learn magic and sorcery. The thing is, Jason himself doesn’t believe sorcery is real, and thinks Marla’s position in Felport is more that of some kind of organized crime kingpin. Marla doesn’t disabuse him of this idea, nor does she mind his playing this idiot millionaire. She even allows her right-hand man Rondeau to be drawn into the thing as Jason’s partner, in part because she knows better than to trust Jason and wants Rondeau keeping tabs on him. He’s a grifter, after all, and everything’s a game. Besides, Marla has her hands full training up her new apprentice and heir-presumptive, Bradley Bowman, the erstwhile actor flown in from San Francisco.

Pratt toys with your emotions here. You wrestle with feelings of disappointment that Marla isn’t a little more resistant to the game her brother’s running, and that she even plays a tiny role in it. After all, the tycoon — whom everyone calls by the revealingly childlike nickname of Cam-Cam — is certainly a dimwit, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be scammed out of a whopping great ten million dollars. But while Marla’s moral sense isn’t the barren wasteland her brother’s is, she’s never exactly cast herself in a white knight role either. And as long as Jason stays out of her business and doesn’t interfere with her running her city, she has no reason to care what he does. Or does her insouciance towards Jason’s activities stem from the fact that she’s being played a little as well? 

Interference begins rather quickly, as an element of Jason’s game (involving nonexistent spores he’s telling the mark will eliminate a ravenous vampire colony) leaks out, and gets the attention of a malevolent entity, a kind of fungus god. This being promptly sends its sorcerer Bulliard to Felport to retrieve these spores. As Marla tells one of her allies, the shit is about to hit the fan at Mach 1. 

Reading this book I was mindful of how closely to reality — in principle, if not in content — Jason’s scam conforms. The most successful con is one that exploits hope, and Jason understands that all you have to do to win over the mark is to make him believe you’re the one who can fill that hole deep inside that his hope is barely plugging. In real life, our culture is rife with all manner of irrational superstitions, as well as more prosaic forms of unreason, such as paranoid conspiracy theories and the like. And an entire industry of con artists has sprung up to leech off these people. Whether they’re celebrity “psychics” like those who claim to talk to your dead relatives, or people pushing absurd “alternative” health remedies and diet supplements, or purveyors of any number of the-shadowy-government-agents-are-going-to-kill-and/or-enslave-us kooks, there are legions of shameless hucksters eager to fleece the gullible of their cash. It would be one thing if all the victims were rich knuckleheads like Cam-Cam. But in reality, the victims are normal everyday chumps, who often lose more than just their meager pocket money. People who have resisted proper medical care for simple illnesses, or refused to vaccinate their children, have paid with their families’ lives. In the book, the more Bulliard is told the spores are just imaginary, the more stubbornly he insists he’s being lied to and that they’re real. The True Believer in a nutshell. 

But as the novel reveals, the worst betrayals that hustlers commit are not financial but emotional and psychological. It’s pretty obvious, all through the book, that the other shoe is going to drop where Jason is concerned, and it’s only a matter of time. The power of the book’s final chapters, however — and up to that point, Spell Games is quite simply the funniest of the whole series — is undimmed for all that, because it shows in unflinching terms just how destructive the consequences really are, not merely from misplaced trust, but from being the kind of cold narcissist whose entire life is built upon the dishonest acquisition of wealth and the thrill of deceit, as if it were some sort of compensation for a suicide of the soul.

Followed by Broken Mirrors, which Pratt serialized himself online beginning in March 2010 after Spectra dropped the series with this volume.