Raising the Stakes
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.