Grove Atlantic, 2018, 280 pages
At 27, magician Natalie Webb is already a has-been. A card-trick prodigy, she started touring at 17, took first place at the World of Magic competition at 18, and never reached such heights again. Shunned by the magic world after a disastrous liaison with an older magician, she now lives alone with her pigeons and a pile of overdue bills in a New Jersey apartment. In a desperate ploy to make extra cash, she follows up on an old offer to write a feature magazine article - on the art of cheating at cards.
But when she meets the perfect subject for her article, what begins as a journalistic gamble brings into question everything Natalie thinks she knows about her talent, and herself. Natalie is dazzled by the poker cheat's sleight of hand and soon finds herself facing a proposition that could radically alter her fortune - to help pull off a $1.5 million magic trick that, if done successfully, no one will ever even suspect happened.
With Kardos raising the stakes chapter after chapter, Bluff is a breathtaking work of suspense from a writer at the top of his game.
This fast-moving story about two women pulling off a poker sting was almost perfectly constructed. A believable and sympathetic character with just enough backstory to motivate her, secondary characters given just enough but not too much fleshing out, and a plot that provides entertaining twists and turns all the way to the end.
Natalie Webb is a young magician, though she's not feeling so young nowadays. As a teenager, she was an up-and-comer who thought she'd be the next David Blaine. Then she had an unfortunate collision with the magic community's Old Boys' Club, including sleeping with a married man, and now her career consists of doing card tricks at clubs, birthday parties, and lawyers' conventions. Not the future she imagined for herself. She manages to make it worse when a heckler at her latest gig gets on her last nerve. (Protip: If you are going to assault someone with a card in the eye, don't do it to a personal injury lawyer.)
Now that she's well and truly screwed, Natalie is desperate to scrounge up some cash. Initially she gets the idea of doing a magazine article on a card cheat. Card cheats are the "dark side" of the magic community, and Natalie swore she'd never take that path. But when Natalie witnesses another woman fleece a table full of poker players with card skills that vastly exceed hers, she becomes obsessed with learning this other woman's secrets. Soon Natalie has been recruited for a million-dollar sting to take down a rich guy's home game. It can't fail, except that both Natalie and her "partner" have secrets.
I really liked Bluff. It swerved unexpectedly, both during and after the game that is the climax of the book, and it made Natalie a character I was rooting for even when she started trodding the dark side. There is enough believable detail about card tricks and poker games, even though that's not what the book is really about. This isn't really a series, but I'd love to read another book starring Natalie, and I'll check out Kardos's other books.
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