Gambled Away is a diverse selection of stories linked literally and figuratively by games of chance. I found the anthology entertaining and satisfying, though some authors were more successful than others. Each novella stands alone, but familiarity with previous works by these authors (particularly Ms. Lin), would probably help to establish context the shorter format doesn’t allow.
I’m reviewing the novellas in the same order they appear in the anthology. Though if I have to pick a favorite – or you want to start somewhere other than at the beginning – Redeemed, by Molly O’Keefe, is particularly excellent and All or Nothing, by Rose Lerner is also very good.
Gideon and the Den of Thieves
- by Joanna Bourne
Grade : B- Sensuality : Warm
Gideon and the Den of Thieves
I was predisposed to like this novella for a couple of reasons. First, I LOVE Joanna Bourne’s spy novels and recommend them to everyone I know. Second, Hawker is my favorite Bourne spy and he appears in this story. Readers familiar with Ms. Bourne’s previous novels will recognize many characters (and that certainly helps put the story in context), including Lazarus, King Thief of London, and leader of the Brotherhood.
Aimée Beauclerc escaped the French Revolution only to find herself prisoner to Lazarus. She appraises stolen goods for the Brotherhood and the job provides her a small measure of safety. As the story begins, she and Hawker are worried. Lazarus, recently stabbed in a fight, is vulnerable to Bent Thomas, a member of the Brotherhood looking to overthrow him. Before Thomas can raise a challenge, Gideon Gage is spotted lurking outside. His entrance provides just the distraction Aimée and Hawker need.
Gideon, a soldier of fortune, has come to the den of thieves to barter for his kidnapped sister Daphne - Lazarus’s current toy. With weapons and men of his own, Gideon threatens to storm the hideout if his sister isn’t returned to him. He shows no fear in the hall and despite the rags he’s worn to disguise himself, there’s no disguising his powerful presence, and in him, Aimée sees a way to escape. She’s attracted to him but controls her response in front of Lazarus and the other members of the Brotherhood.
Gideon is focused on his sister and negotiating for her release, but is curious about and interested in Aimée. Clearly his sister trusts her, and she also appears to holds a position of significance in the Brotherhood. She’s strong, proud and holds her own with Lazarus, though he senses she fears him. Gideon decides he also wants Aimée. As he negotiates Daphne’s release with Lazarus, he quietly plans to abduct and free Aimée as well.
Though this story is nominally about the fast developing attraction/lust/love between Gideon and Aimée, the deep games at play between the King Thief and just about every other character in the story take center stage. Ms. Bourne pulls all these disparate threads together into a resolution with a surprise twist. Everyone, including an apparently sentimental Lazarus, gets what they want. Well, not Bent Thomas. But he gets what he deserves.
Gideon and the Den of Thieves is probably my least favorite of Ms. Bourne’s spy series, but enjoyable nonetheless.
- by Molly O'Keefe
Grade : A Sensuality : Warm
I loved Redeemed, even with its dark subject matter and deeply flawed characters. Ms. O’Keefe has a masterful touch and capably leads the reader out of the darkness and into the light as the story concludes. Though I’m often frustrated by short stories, this is lush with detail and engaging from start to finish.
Dr. James Madison lives in a whorehouse. A Union doctor during the Civil War, he’s newly free of an addiction to the chloroform he abused to try to silence traumatic war memories. Delilah, the whorehouse owner, cared for him as he detoxed and with nowhere else to go, he stays. Full of despair, regret and loneliness, James walks the streets at night to fend off cravings for the drug. Returning one evening, he notices a large cage in the barroom. He learns the Northern Spy, a beautiful woman who sings while locked in the cage, is also staying in the whorehouse and scheduled to appear over three nights.
The Northern Spy is Helen Winters, ward of Dr. Charles Park, a former landowner from Charleston. When James is sent to her rooms by Delilah to determine whether she is a virgin, he discovers a beautiful woman and a mystery. She’s clearly under the influence of a narcotic, wary of James, fearful of Park, and under guard at all times. His instincts, and the feelings she arouses when he’s with her, lead him in a quest to save her from whatever ties her to Park.
On the last night of the Northern Spy’s engagement, James defeats Park in a high stakes poker game and wins a night with Helen. Park has no intention of releasing her, but in the chaos at the end of the game, James and Helen escape. As James helps Helen regain her independence - from the cage, the laudanum, and her past - he finds own redemption and freedom from his past.
The direction of the story changes after they escape the whorehouse. Park discovers Helen and attempts to trap her once again. The aftermath of this confrontation and a major twist that heralds a change in Helen’s fortunes, completely change the tone of the story. I was caught off guard and surprised the story went in the direction it did. From hopeless to hopeful, the conclusion and epilogue were bittersweet and pitch perfect.
Redeemed is a brilliant and moving love story. It’s easily my favorite novella in the anthology.
Raising the Stakes
- by Isabel Cooper
Grade : B Sensuality : Warm
Raising the Stakes by Isabel Cooper
I’m still sorting out my feelings about Raising the Stakes. I don’t read a ton of fantasy, but I like the genre and the way it challenges my imagination. I was initially wary of a love match between a con artist and an elven warrior but Ms. Cooper makes it work.
The story opens in the middle of a poker game. Sam, our heroine, is cataloging what cards have yet to be played. She doesn’t want to cheat the other men at the table and thinks she can win honestly. She does, but that’s less significant than her winnings – cash, a magic flute, and what she overhears about a corrupt preacher living in the area.
Following the instructions passed on by its former owner, Sam plays the flute on the beach after midnight. She’s struggling to make a wish when she’s surprised by a shimmering in the air and the approach of a winged shape. What appears at first to be an owl lands in front of her and transforms into the handsome warrior elf, Talathan. He introduces himself to the awestruck Sam and explains the rules regarding the wish he can grant her. Sam saves her wish and instead asks probing questions about Talathan and his abilities.
As Sam and Talathan get to know one another, she explains the circumstances that led her to running cons and gambling for money, telling Talathan ”I’m no angel, but I’m no devil either. Not entirely. Everyone’s gotta live.” Talathan, enigmatic and hard for her to read, finds himself attracted to his (temporary) owner. He falls for the beautiful but gruff Sam; when she finally asks for his help, he agrees even though their short acquaintance requires both to take a leap of faith and trust each other.
With Talathan’s help, Sam sets in place a complicated con of the preacher and his wife that unfolds over several afternoons. In the evenings they share a room and a bed. Though Sam bears most of the risk, she relies on Talathan, with his ability to transform and fly, to support her and provide inside information when he can. Their transition from simple co-conspirators to friends, and ultimately to lovers is seamless, although as with most short stories, I wished the author had more time to devote to their romance. But it works with the pacing and plot of the story.
The conclusion alludes to a happy future together in Sam’s world, but Ms. Cooper wisely checks the impulse to deliver the HEA for this odd couple in a neat and tidy package. Raising the Stakes left me eager for more from this author.
The Liar's Dice
- by Jeannie Lin
Grade : C Sensuality : Warm
The Liar's Dice by Jeannie Lin
I don’t think The Liar’s Dice enhances Gambled Away. The slow pace, the setting, and ambiguous ending struck a discordant note with me and for me, it is the least successful novella in the anthology. A murder and the ensuing search for the killer drives the plot and unfortunately, Ms. Lin sacrifices the romance in order to solve a crime.
At twenty-five, Lady Bai (called Wei-wei) is unmarried and lives at home with her scholarly family. She’s resigned to spinsterhood and spends her days reading and tutoring her younger brother, although deep down she longs for adventure and freedom. Masquerading as a man in her brother Huang’s robes, she convinces a manservant to take her to a tea house late one evening. She enjoys her outing, but when Wei-wei is ready to return home, her driver and carriage are nowhere to be found.
Mistaking her for her brother Huang, a stranger calls out to her as she searches for her carriage. He offers to guide her back to the tea house and introduces himself as Gao. It’s understood Gao knows the young man is a she, but neither character voices it. Wei-wei surreptitiously catalogs Gao’s appearance, clothing, and the sound of his voice, finding herself attracted to her mysterious companion. But he doesn’t reveal who he is, how he knows her brother, or why he is in the area and she never gets a chance to ask. As they walk to the tea house, they hear a cry for help. When Wei-wei reaches the source of the cry, she discovers a man crumpled on the ground, dead. Gao persuades her to leave and returns her to her carriage.
When Wei-wei tries to piece together the evening's events, she realizes Gao must have been waiting for her brother, and returns to the neighborhood of the tea house to ask him why. The remainder of the novella finds her ferreting out clues as to why her brother might have been involved in the crime and what role, if any, Gao played. She follows Gao through gambling dens in search of clues and when she gets too close to the killer, she’s kidnapped. Gao somehow finds her and gambles for her freedom. Wei-wei finds herself unable to stop thinking about the mysterious Gao - and longing to spend more time with him.
The ending seemed rushed, and I was disappointed the story concluded with so many unanswered questions. We never truly learn who Gao is or what motivates him to help Wei-wei, or even if they see one another again. The Liar’s Dice deserved a longer format.
All or Nothing
- by Rose Lerner
Grade : B+ Sensuality : Warm
All or Nothing by Rose Lerner
Ms. Lerner’s romances are set far from the glittering ton, her main characters are often working class men and women, not every character is wealthy, explicit depictions and conversations about sex are common, and sexuality isn’t limited to m/f. I like her books for those reasons, but mostly because she’s a terrific writer. In All or Nothing, she takes a gamble and amps up all the qualities that make her novels unique. The resulting story is titillating and sexy.
Our hero and heroine are Simon Radcliffe-Gould, an architect barely making ends meet, and Maggie da Silva, hostess at the gaming club he frequents. It’s a habit he can ill afford, but he can’t resist his attraction to Maggie. She’s similarly enamored with him. Frustrated by his failure to seek her out for a liaison, she encourages her partner (in both business and pleasure) to encourage Simon to gamble for her favors. The game is rigged and Simon wins. But neither Maggie nor Simon reacts as expected.
As a gentleman, Simon offers to release Maggie from the bet. Offended, she tells him to forget it. To placate her, he asks if she will accompany him to a less than respectable house party he’s attending, and she Maggie agrees to go. Simon hopes having her around will enable him to work on designing a folly for the owner (a former lover) and provide him with an excuse to stay out of the mischievous games sure to be played.
At the house party, Simon is revealed to be a more complicated and interesting character than I originally assumed. The complicated relationship with his ex and his insecurities initially prevent him from pursuing a sexual relationship with Maggie. Maggie, a sexually liberated jewish heroine with a pathological fear of being alone, struggles to define who she is. They become close friends and when they finally become lovers, it’s hot, dirty and mutually satisfying. At the end of the house party, they gamble on love and agree to stay together. Their happy ending is distinctly different from most traditional regencies - but fits with their evolved and evolving relationship.
All or Nothing was all and nothing like I expected from this author. Explicit sex, flexible sexuality and a non-traditional HEA shocked me - in a good way. I expect many other readers will feel similarly. I hope they also enjoy this surprising (and sexy) story as much as I did.