“Wagers of Sin” is the second book in the “Tales of the Time Scouts” collection that I bought. This book takes a minor villain from “Time Scout”, Skeeter Jackson, who in the first book essentially tried to scam Margo into thinking that he, a simple con artist, could train her to be a Time Scout, and tries to make him into a sympathetic character, by pitting him against another minor villain from “Time Scout”, Goldie Morran, in a wager to see who can scam the most money, with the loser having to leave the station forever. Trying to redeem a character that even this book admits is simply a scoundrel is a tough task. Does the book succeed?
For me, it did. It starts out by fleshing out Skeeter’s backstory, but the backstory doesn’t really sell us on the character. Sure, Skeeter was essentially ignored by his rich parents and adopted stealing as a way to act out, and he did end up spending a significant amount of time trapped in the past with a fairly brutal set of Monguls, but ultimately that’s not what makes us sympathetic to him. There are really two big reasons why we end up not siding with the “time cop” in wanting to kick both Skeeter and Goldie off the station. The first is a new and likeable character called “Marcus”, a former Roman slave who was brought into this time, has a debt that his honour demands he pay off, and who actually really seems to like Skeeter. The second is the reason that he likes Skeeter, in that even as a scoundrel Skeeter has a sense of honour, in the sense that he refuses to steal from those he considers his “family”, which essentially here is his tribe of the actual inhabitants of the station. This leads us to reconsider in hindsight his reaction in “Time Scout” when Kit Carson told him that Margo was Kit’s granddaughter. Originally, we just assumed that it was nothing more than fear — as everyone seemed to be afraid of Kit Carson — but while that was almost certainly also true, it’s also possible that his reaction was due to him realizing that he, unwittingly, had broken that code of honour and robbed from what was essentially his family.
And Skeeter gets a chance to prove that he does have that sense of honour. In one of his scams, he asks for money from Marcus for it … and pays him off when it works. Ultimately, it’s clear that Marcus treats him with respect and honour and Skeeter definitely returns the favour.
The continual insertion of the gladiator from Rome whom Skeeter swindled and who get trapped — kinda — in the present trying to chase him down was an interesting idea that got old very, very quickly. Sure, given that it was all that the gladiator had to purchase his freedom, we could feel sorry for him … but he still focused far too much on vengeance and not just on justice. And this only got worse when Marcus befriends him, as given his respect for Marcus you’d think that Marcus could have calmed the situation, but that just didn’t work out. But the situation doesn’t add enough for it to drag out that long through the entire story. And in trying to explain what happens to people from the past who happen to end up in the present, it ends up creating massive issues, as they are essentially interrogated and then dumped into dead end jobs. But, as the book notes, this creates a bit of an unstable situation, and they band together to form a fairly formidable force. Sure, it’s not unreasonable to think that this might happen … but people like Kit, Malcolm and even the director of the station seem sympathetic enough to those people to come up with a better solution.
The book uses characters from the first book quite well … except for Margo. When she returns, she’s still displaying arrogance and is even more annoying than she was in the first book, without the excuse of inexperience to explain it. In her big scene, she’s arrogantly explaining weapons to take to the Old West to a university party, and doing it in a way that suggests her great expertise in the matter … except that in the first book she knew nothing about that sort of thing and was still more arrogant on the matter than the supposedly arrogant academics are here. So it comes across as massive hypocrisy, as she talks down to them despite only something like a year before being worse than they were. That being said, when paired with the more likeable Malcolm she becomes more tolerable. Kit Carson also does well in a minor role, as does someone who came forward chasing Margo at one point and played a minor role in the other events. He plays a minor role here as well, but definitely gives us a face to put on the plight of those who accidentally end up in this time from other times.
The book was an entertaining read. I’m not going to list it as one of my all-time favourite books, but it was enjoyable and I’d probably read it again at some point. The setting is interesting, but I think it’s underused in both books, and when they try to get into the time station politics they make a hash of it, as the head “time cop” is an arrogant, idiotic jackass, not someone with valid concerns who might be being too diligent in his pursuit, which is what was needed. But, overall, still an entertaining book.