The first book about the Wild Cards took place over decades, introducing the reader to the jokers and aces-and occasional “nats”-that populate the Earth after the Wild Card Virus wreaked its havoc. Well, Aces High shrinks the time frame down considerably-the first story takes place in 1979, and the bulk of the story takes place in 1985-1986. That’s one difference. The other difference is that the first book held completely self-contained stories, while this one has certain events occurring in the background that helps drive the plot.
Those events are related to an alien invasion from the Swarm, which Dr. Tachyon describes as a type of telepathic yeasts. The invasion also coincides with activities of a group of Egyptian Masons that see the Swarm as an entity known as TIAMAT, for which they’ve been waiting for a very long time; and the Masons aren’t exactly what you’d call compassionate people. These stories are still fairly contained, each dealing with differing aspects of the invasion.
A framing story is about a joker named Jube Benson, who is actually far more of a stranger than he seems; he is intimately involved with many of the goings on behind the scenes in this book-some events moreso than others. His investigations reveal many of the secrets behind the Masons and the Swarm (well, kind of).
The first story, “Pennies from Hell”, involves Fortunato and his attempts to learn more about TIAMAT after discovering a second copper coin-the first having been found ten years ago. It gets the ball rolling on the Egyptian Masons, and is an okay story. I didn’t have many problems with it. The second is “Ashes to Ashes”, which features the Sleeper, and is a rather amusing tale when Croyd is hired to recover a body. It was probably one of my favorites in this book.
It all hits the fan with “Unto the Sixth Generation”, which introduces the android Modular Man, as well as his somewhat socially deviant creator-it also features the first strike of the Swarm, and the beginning of full activity for the Masons. Continuing the vein of new characters, James Spector stars in “If Looks Could Kill”. James is a bit of a sociopath, at least that’s how it seems to me; it probably didn’t help that he’s the only known survivor of a Black Queen draw of the Wild Card-but the price he paid wasn’t exactly worth it.
Next are a trio of stories that work well together, as the characters from each have parts in each of these to some extent. “Winter’s Chill” is a story of Thomas Tudbury, during a lull in the invasion, and how he deals with the marriage of an old sweetheart…and how he reflects on how he came to reach this state. Then, “Relative Difficulties” brings Doctor Tachyon face to face with his relatives, and believe me, they’re as dysfunctional as any family on TV…if you add lethal tendencies to the mix. And there is “With a Little Help From His Friends”, in which Mark Meadows and his “friends” work to prove that a joker didn’t commit a murder in Jokertown, only to find that the true culprit is far more dangerous.
“By Lost Ways” features a young woman who goes by “Water Lily” who gets caught up in the whole Masons mess. I wasn’t all that impressed by this story, to be honest. I really can’t say why…it just didn’t grab me. “Half Past Dead” features Yeoman, and his continuing war against his enemy Kien…which gets tied into a final chance to defeat the Swarm.
The stories are a mixed bag. I found I really liked some, and didn’t like some others. Actually, “didn’t like” isn’t really the right term; it’s just that I didn’t enjoy them as I did some of the others. And, again, I have to question the format of the re-release of this book at such a high price. If the publishers are hoping to drum up interest for a new set of Wild Card books, they certainly chose a lousy way to do it. My recommendations for the first book holds true for Aces High.