Nikki Tate is a 17-year-old poker prodigy. Maybe it’s in her genes; maybe it’s a matter of training. Probably both. Nikki is the daughter of Nate Tate, the owner of the Andromeda Palace and the most prodigious poker player in Las Vegas. But Nate has been off the scene for several years, imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, largely because he is black. The flimsy evidence that put him on death row has recently been disproved by a DNA test, and as the book opens, Nikki and her mother are bringing him home. It’s an adjustment for all. Nikki’s mom has been courted by a man she likes; Nikki has more or less been handling Andromeda Palace’s finances; on the side, she has been running an underground (and underage) poker group, stashing her considerable winnings so she can escape Vegas altogether and go to the University of Virginia with her two friends. Nate has problems, too; he is obsessed by his determination to find who framed him, and determined to re-establish himself as a firm father. In a marvelous scene, he joins Nikki in a poker game and teaches her a gambling lesson she will never forget. The father-daughter tension ends abruptly when Nate is murdered. And Nikki is determined to find out who is responsible.
Nikki’s quest for her father’s murderer takes her into 20 years of Las Vegas history, particularly that involving her father; John Reedy, the man Nate was wrongly imprisoned for murdering; and Big Bert Carlino, the owner of Mount Nysos, the fanciest and richest outfit on the Strip. As Nikki, backed by her two faithful friends Gavin and Molly, gets further into the tale of danger and rivalry, her quest is complicated by her growing attraction to Davis Carlino, Big Bert’s second son. It’s also complicated by rivalries involving the two high school football teams, the cutthroat world of card sharks, and the tough world of biker gangs. There are dangerous people all around, but Nikki knows no fear. Except, maybe, of losing Davis, which seems entirely likely, given the circumstances that gradually come to light. As for the serious possibility of losing her life, she leaves that for her friends to worry about.
Lamar Giles is a two-time Edgar Award finalist. He’s well-known for writing suspense books with a lot of fast action, and this is one of them. But it’s more than that. It’s a portrait of Las Vegas that few tourists see: the life beyond the Strip. Here’s a town in which the two high schools have a long history of rivalry (and attendant damage). Here’s a town in which Gavin is struggling to support his family, and Molly is neglected by her parents. Here’s a town in which Nikki and hundreds of others work very hard to maintain competing hotels and gambling halls. Here’s a town in which the deathless loyalty of Nikki’s friends survives all odds. And here’s a town that threatens to make a high school romance turn into Romeo and Juliet. Giles has the good taste not to hit that parallel too hard, partly by making the characters and their difficult backgrounds entirely believable. And Davis – sensible, steady, devoted, but loyal to his family – is always upstaged by Nikki, a tough, smart, talented, difficult, stubborn girl the reader roots for all the way.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.