The bum turns out to be an arrogant bastard even when he's blind. He claims to be in the middle of a high-stakes poker game -- for the city -- where sending eyeball-ripping fairies against your opponents is just the sort of light-hearted table manners that makes poker fun. And while he's growing his eyes back, would Billy Fox mind keeping his seat warm? He can pay well, if Billy wins.
Magic plus poker means comparing to Tim Powers. (Magic plus spies also means comparing to Tim Powers, as does magic plus pirates, magic plus Romantic poets, magic plus Cold War spies... okay, Tim Powers is hot shit. This review is not about Tim Powers, however. Let me start over.)
The author tells an excellent poker story. He's not nearly as comfortable telling an urban fantasy story. The opening scene is full of awkward infodumping and "let me explain about magic" speeches -- from someone who is supposed to be an arrogant bastard demigod. It all feels very shoehorned in to be an opening scene. The magic is too often conveyed in dialogue, not in reactions and assumptions and the way things are seen. (Which is, of course, what Tim Powers excels at.)
It's a pity, because once we get to the poker game, everything flows smoothly. The table jargon feels natural and there's plenty of context to clue in the non-poker-adept reader. We can play poker with Billy Fox; he doesn't have to explain it.
(I am a non-poker-adept reader, but as far as my knowledge runs, the poker in this book is good. I particularly appreciated that the tournament is not decided by James-Bond-style crazy hands -- the straight flushes and etc -- but by having the three-of-a-kind or two-pair when the other guy doesn't.)
There is plenty of magic mixed in with the cards. Our hero learns some tricks as the tournament runs on; he spends as much time running around the city dealing with, you know, deals as he does sitting at the table. The scenes get a little smoother, or maybe I just got used to the style. To be clear, the stuff that happens is all pretty cool. I'm not objecting to the author's sense of drama, just to the way he presents it. I also object to the repeated use of the "I explained to my friend what we were going to do" narrative-palming trick.
If the author can manage to steer his fantasy elements with the same aplomb as his poker, he will have some good books ahead. I assumed while reading that Richard Lee Byers is a first-time author. This turns out not to be true -- he's mostly been writing D&D tie-ins, which is why I didn't recognize the name -- but I hope he continues adapting to urban fantasy.