Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Big Blind by Lavie Tidhar

The Big Blind, Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing 978-1-786365-98-9, £18.00, 164pp, hc) November 2020.

With its long and shady history, poker seems to have a natural affinity for fantasy writers, ranging from Edward Whittemore (Jerusalem Poker) to Tim Powers (Last Call). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the ever-eclectic Lavie Tidhar turns his attention to it with The Big Blind, which is peppered with cardsharp lingo and informed descriptions of high-stakes games. There’s not actually a shred of SF or fantasy in the novella, so the obvious question is, why mention it at all here? Well, Tidhar has long taken a kind of perverse glee in his own unpredictability, sometimes blurring the line between pointed literary allusiveness and simple attention deficit, as evidenced most recently by his bizarre reinvention of Arthurian legends in By Force Alone (reviewed here in June). So while the question of what Tidhar might come up with next is a perfectly reasonable one, I have to admit that about the last thing I’d have expected is a sweet-natured tale that, with almost no changes, would work just fine as a 1950s Audrey Hepburn comedy about a young poker-playing Irish nun trying to save her convent from foreclosure.

Technically, Claire is a novice, not yet a nun, and there are some noirish bits about her past as we learn about her peripatetic childhood with her beloved father, a legendary player if a rather irresponsible parent. And there are a few darker moments in Claire’s own past, though it’s clear that she’s learned a lot from her dad, not only about poker, but about survival. While the reasons for her decision to enter a convent aren’t fully convincing, the dedication with which she sneaks off at night to poker tournaments and secretly deposits the winnings in the convent’s donation box is touching, and when the opportunity to enter the European Poker Championship coincides with the Bishop telling the Mother Superior that fore­closure is imminent, the rest of the story unfolds like a Hollywood playbook. With short, punchy chapters, Tidhar avoids both an excessive focus on the strategic details of individual games (a common flaw in stories about gambling) and a too-sentimental treatment of Claire’s own not-very-compelling questions of faith. With Tidhar, of course, we keep expecting the tale to swerve onto an unexpected off-ramp, but instead he lets events follow their predetermined course toward a feel-good ending. The Big Blind‘s most satisfying surprise may simply be its lack of surprises.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.

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