Michael Kardos. Mysterious, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2804-1

At the start of this intriguing if flawed caper novel from Kardos (Before He Finds Her), 27-year-old magician Natalie Webb loses her cool with an audience volunteer and nearly blinds him with a thrown playing card at a holiday party held at a Newark, N.J., hotel. Anticipating a costly settlement, Natalie needs to get some cash quickly. Her initial plan is to write an article comparing a magician’s card tricks with a card sharp’s methods of cheating, but she decides to abandon her chosen subject, Ethan Garret, for Ethan’s niece, Ellen, after observing her in action at the card table. Natalie’s plan changes again when Ellen offers to take her on as a partner in a card cheating scheme that could net $1 million. But instead of moving to the high-stakes game, the story bogs down in page upon page of card manipulation practice. The thrills come finally on the night of the game and in its startling aftermath. This works best as a character study of Natalie, who has a deep backstory that explains her current straits and motivation. Agent: Jody Kahn, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Apr.)