I had an absolute blast verbally sparring with author Sean Hoade at Phoenix Comicon last year on a panel about H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. It's not just that he knows what he's talking about, at substantial depth, it's that he has such a gloriously surreal sense of humour while doing so. “Reviva Las Vegas!” the first of his books that I've read, underlines that odd mixture of substance and frivolity in a funny conversational tone.
It's a zombie story, set eight years after the Zombocalypse but, even with its quick reworking of the rules outlined in the movie 'Zombieland,' it refuses to play anything conventionally. Hoade really doesn't care how our near future world collapses into a disparate collection of surviving stragglers and he has little interest in using the shambling dead as a metaphor for anything particularly profound. What he cares about is how the survivors might choose to live, what choices they make about their future after the fit has hit the shan and their previous options were rent asunder by armies of the undead.
We follow Chris Newman, whose life 'before' revolved around the art of gambling, as a competitor in the World Series of Poker, a rare niche profession that Steven Seagal hasn't managed to use in an action movie yet. Newman has survived thus far on his wits, wandering the southwest as an itinerant gambler, plying his reputation in games played for food, clothes or other necessities now that the almighty dollar is meaningless and barter is back in style.
It's after one such game, played inside the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville, CA (someone should have told Hoade that it moved to Branson, MO in 2003) for the high stakes of a bag of jellybeans against a pack of nanotech cards that can't be marked and never get worn, that Newman is pointed towards the real story. That's going to unfold in Las Vegas, of course, as is telegraphed by the book's title.
This Las Vegas is a little different from the last time we might have experienced it. For a start, it may be the last city left on God's green that has electricity and running water, both courtesy of the reliable Lake Mead. That means air conditioning and showers and other luxuries that Newman has almost forgotten about since Zomboc. It's a sanctum from the rotting hordes too, with twenty-foot walls built out of crushed vehicles entirely surrounding the Strip and the formerly alive surrounding that.
Of course, Newman sees this as Paradise and gladly accepts the invitation of Nickels Freeman to come to his city and play a high stakes game of poker. Freeman was formerly the proprietor of the Sirens, the worst example of a cheap casino in downtown Vegas but now the city's kingpin, lording it over all his flock from the Bellagio, his personal mansion; one more really neat touch in a novel full of them.
And, of course, if we've seen a single straight-to-video post-apocalyptic B movie from the eighties, we know that Paradise - it surely ain't. Beyond that, though, Hoade keeps us guessing, in an enticing merger of western, horror, sci-fi and comedy. It's definitely a Weird West story but one written from an unusual angle, that of the post-apocalyptic gambler, who's a sort of gunfighter whose weapons are cards: breezing into town, reaching for his deck and firing off a pair of kings to win the day.
It's no stretch to like Newman because he's a decent kind of guy, even if a good part of the book involves him struggling with his feelings for a very precocious fifteen-year-old, who's trying to get him both to Vegas and into the sack. He's not a mysterious man with no name, an archetype made flesh. He's just the lead in a story that wants to eat him, shoot him or throw him over a wall into a ravenous horde of the eternally hungry. We start out learning from him, because he's our guide, but it doesn't take long for us to transition into learning with him, because he's also our hero.
It's no stretch to like Danielle either, that precocious teen who has travelled three days out of Vegas to find him and will travel three more back to bring him home. She's a bright young thing, a crack shot and a young lady of many other talents. We do wonder how the saga of Chris and Danielle will progress but don't worry, it's not the icky pervy creature you might fear.
Most of the rest of the varied cast find it harder to establish themselves deeply because we meet quite a lot of them, but a few do what they do well enough to register in our minds and on the plot. I thought some could have had more opportunity, especially Mister Freeman, who could have been more than just another mad leader of a post-apocalyptic community. Adding cards into the mix isn't enough and more depth would have worked better.
Hoade concentrates more on setting the scene in Vegas, making us wonder what's going on and then springing his reveals with care so that we only gradually realise the true horror. This aspect is really nicely done and it makes us forgive the odd typo and missing word. Maybe it even makes us forgive the passages that delve into gambling strategy and only occasionally remember to clue us in on what they mean. Not all of us live in the city of Lost Wages, after all, and I didn't even have ESPN before I cut the cord and ditched cable.
This first time through a Sean Hoade novel definitely makes me want to read more. I have a second of his books here, but it's no sequel to this. My copy of “Reviva Las Vegas!” appears to be a standalone volume, though the headers do include a subtitle, 'Dead Man's Hand.' Amazon suggests, through an alternate cover, that this is the first in a series, though, and I'd certainly be interested in seeing where Hoade would go with a second.
Next up for me, though, isn't another delightfully punny title like “Deadtown Abbey” but a serious historical novel, “Darwin's Dreams.” It'll be really interesting to see how such a natural comedian as Hoade will do with something where comedy wouldn't be an asset. ~~ Hal C F Astell