'The Sure Bet King' Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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'The Sure Bet King' Review

Alexander Wallace is on to a winner
One of the activities that society overwhelmingly views as a form of massive waste is gambling. It produces nothing of value, takes money from the gullible, and ruins far too many lives. In the US, some states have state-funded lotteries that fund education; this is called the ‘stupid tax’ by some. It is not an activity that you would think could be the makings of a character-focused ‘pop epic,’ but Colin Salt has demonstrated that it is possible. That book is his novel The Sure Bet King.

Salt demonstrates the reality of this strange and cruel industry with two characters: Eddie Ross and Ly Ranchany. The former is the one that gets more characterization, and he is arguably the main character. The narrative follows Ross from his adolescence and then college years working at a casino in the 1990s to his stardom in the early 2000s as an icon of sports betting. It is a rare example of a period piece set during those times, with enough period detail that puts you in a very particular mindset.

Eddie Ross, despite his lack of actual murderous tendencies, is legitimately one of the most terrifying fictional characters I have ever read about. He is strikingly amoral, with his only philosophy (a surprisingly well-developed one, albeit an appalling one) being an obvious justification for what he was going to do anyway. What he does is consciously swindle money out of the gullible and the desperate. People are mere tools to him, be they customers or coworkers or sexual conquests (as he’d doubtlessly put it). The best comparison I have to him in any other book is ‘Slim’ Jim Davidson from John Birmingham’s Axis of Time series.

The other major character in this book, Ly Ranchany, is a very different sort. She is a war refugee from Cambodia who falls into the industry out of a need for money; like Eddie, she becomes fabulously wealthy for it. She is not an innately vicious person; she is someone who has had to become vicious out of necessity, having to be as cutthroat as her competitors to stay in business. Eddie Ross was always horrifying; for Ranchany, the terror is in her descent into the abyss.

There is some violence in this book, but not a lot. It is a ‘nonviolent thriller’ in the way that David Liss’ novel The Coffee Trader is, with the tension coming from the stakes involved in the meteoric ascent of two different rising stars. Even so, there is a sadness underlying the whole book, about how miserable these two people really are. They are haunted by whether they even deserve this success, whether they admit it or not.

The Sure Bet King is a scary book. It shows how, in painful detail, the cruel and the sociopathic rise to power. Some are born that way, and some are hammered into that, but the result is the same. Salt has written an incisive look into what power really means, and what can be done when people search for it over all other things. The worst part, you don’t need to imagine what living in Eddie Ross’ world is like - you’re already there.

(A disclosure: I know Salt well, having been on a podcast with him, and we have both written for the Sea Lion Press blog - I wholly recommend his blog Fuldapocalypse)

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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