“Queen of Spades” by Michael Shou-Yung Shum

Queen of Spades

Queen of Spades

Michael Shou-Yung Shum

What a cracking tale! As soon as I saw the title, I knew I had to read it. Although “Queen of Spades” isn’t my favorite of Pushkin’s stories–that honor goes to his “Little Tragedies”–it’s certainly a classic for a reason. This version, set in a casino in Snoqualmie in the 1980s, is a loose adaptation that maintains the essential premise–an obsessed gambler, an impossibly old and lucky Countess, and a fatal game of Faro–while modifying it enough that even readers familiar with Pushkin’s tale won’t be able to guess the final outcome.

Arturo Chan is a dealer who never stays more than a few months at a casino. He’s hired at the Royal and discovers that it’s one of the few casinos left that still offers Faro, and that a mysterious elderly woman known as the Countess sometimes comes and places the occasional, but very large, bet at the Faro table. Arturo becomes fascinated with her and seeks to learn more about her and about Faro.

Meanwhile, Chimsky, a dealer in the High Limit Room, has gotten into trouble with a loan shark. To pay off his debt, he offers to throw a game of Faro for him, even though it’s technically almost impossible. Only fate takes a hand–or is it Lady Luck?

This “Queen of Spades” is a longer work than the original, with more characters and a more detailed plot. In lieu of Pushkin’s spare compression, this version chooses to spend more time with the characters and their lives, all of which are sad but slightly magical. We get to know the types of people who spend their time in casinos and racetracks, and, more than that, we get a feel for their lives, and the sense that events converge in patterns. Gambling, like drugs, may be addictive, but also like drugs, it can put you in touch with with something greater than yourself–when luck is with you, you’re aligned with the entire universe, a part of something greater than yourself. Pushkin, himself an inveterate gambler and a duelist, focused on the sick thrill and the destructive power of gambling; Shou-Yung Shum, while not neglecting that aspect of it, focuses more on both the technical aspects and the “flow state” that players can sometimes enter into. So WARNING! Gambling addicts will probably want to stay far, far away from this book! Although ignorant enough of cards that I don’t even know the rules for poker (and therefore found some of the technical moments above my head), I still found myself hopelessly sucked into the action, biting my nails until all the races had been run or the cards had been played. A deeply thrilling and magical tale of life, cards, and adrenaline.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Buy links: Barnes and NobleAmazon

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