Wild Cards

Jokers Wild, edited by George R. R. Martin

jokerswildDisgusting Alien Powers Used to Abuse Little Kid.
Juvenile Delinquent Uses Ace Powers to Aggravate City.
Aggravate?  Can’t I at least terrorize?
Maybe when you’re older.
-Conversation between Kid Dinosaur and Doctor Tachyon

Of this set of Wild Cards books, this is the one I found most enjoyable.  While the first book set the stage, and the second one had a theme, Jokers Wild is a mosaic novel, with all the storylines occurring simultaneously.  The only books that I’ve read that surpasses this one in blending multiple authors into a seamless story were the Star Trek collaborations (which covered all the television series in separate books except for Voyager).

Jokers Wild’s major plotline picks up from a plot from Fortunato’s stories.  The Astronomer, the mind behind the coming of the Swarm (or at least so it’s popularly believed) has decided that he’s going to finally repay all the aces that smashed his base of operations in the Cloisters-by killing all responsible, saving Fortunato for last.  He’s gathered a number of aces to give him a hand with it-although one notable exception who doesn’t want involved again is Demise.  That decision puts him up at the head of the list for the Astronomer.

The timing of the Astronomer’s rampage couldn’t be worse.  The date is September 15, 1986, the fortieth anniversary of the day the Wild Card virus was unleashed on Earth.  Wild Card Day has become New York’s version of Mardi Gras.  And there’s a lot more happening than just the Astronomer’s work.  A young thief going by the name of Wraith has stolen a pair of notebooks from a Kien Phuc (don’t laugh-it’s really his name!), and one of those notebooks is far, far more valuable than it looks.  This leads a number of individuals hunting for it, not the least of which is the most infamous archer in the city.

In the meantime, a mysterious organization is moving in against the Mafia, looking to take over organized crime in the city.  Rosemary Muldoon, an assistant DA and mafia princess, and her ace friend Bagabond become involved with that, while their mutual friend Jack Robicheaux tries to catch up to his niece Cordelia, who’s just run away to NYC-and she becomes involved with a bunch of the events of this book.

And just to keep things interesting, other characters are heavily involved in the assorted plots, such as Doctor Tachyon, Hiram Worchester-the owner of the restaurant Aces High-and his friend Jay Ackroyd, a character who I really enjoy reading!

This was, in my opinion, the best of this trilogy.  While there were some hiccups due to the number of writers, the story tended to blend well-characters from multiple stories interacted with each other seamlessly, and the tone of each character was maintained by all the writers.  There’s plenty of intrigue-as evidenced by Wraith and the notebooks, Demise in his attempt to make a living (not in a nice way) while evading the wrath of the Astronomer, and the Astronomer’s work to have each of the aces who ruined his plans killed.  And there’s enough action to satisfy-from a confrontation in Aces High to a fight in the sky above New York.

If the reprints stop here, at least Jokers Wild ends at a decent enough note-it’s a good stopping point for those who don’t want to continue paying the overpriced re-releases.  But if so, I’d still recommend hunting down remaining Wild Card books at used bookstores (or even online), because it gets better.  After all, this is a book series that isn’t afraid to do in characters (which will become abundantly clear), which sets it apart from the reset-button mentality of other super-hero genre novels (Batman, Spider-Man, etc).

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Aces High, edited by George R. R. Martin

aceshighI’ll get the arm!  You get the leg!
What about the hand?
-A scene between Devil John Darlingfoot and Croyd Crenson that has to be read to be believed

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.

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Deuces Down, edited by George R. R. Martin

Oh my God….  I haven’t seen this many possible suspects since the Democratic National Convention….
-Melissa Blackwood, a.k.a. Topper

Well, in many ways, the newest Wild Cards book has been a mixed bag.  It’s not really the book’s fault, though.

I was looking forward to the first wholly original Wild Cards novel in years the moment I found out about it.  A lot of time has passed since the last one, and I was hoping to see some old favorites again, or at least hints of what’s been happening in the interim.  There were a couple of loose ends from Black Trump that I wanted to see resolved.

Deuces Down doesn’t fulfill those hopes.  What it does do is once again take the reader on a trip through history, focusing on a specific batch of aces.  These are not the awesome aces like Fortunato, the Turtle, or Demise, though.  These center on the folks who ended up with less than impressive powers, which are hardly earthshaking, but still beat the odds of ending up a joker, or dead from the Black Queen.  (If these terms seem odd to you…why not read my review of the first Wild Cards trilogy?)  Like the original novel, and the book Card Sharks, Deuces Down takes us throughout Wild Card history, from the days after World War II to the near present (if not the actual present), and each story is a self contained story.  As such, we have a potential mixed bag stories to cover.

“Storming Space”, by Michael Cassutt, is the story of Cash Mitchell, an ace with the ability to lighten mass in proportion to his grip (often triggered by anger or other strong emotions).  He’s approached by a fellow named Tominbang to participate in a daring project-to make a flight to the moon!  I found this to be a nice story, which really centers on more of the human element than the powers element or the “to the moon” element.  I enjoyed the main character’s moral dilemmas as well, as he get approached by a local crime lord to sabotage the mission, even though he wants to participate in the mission!

John J. Miller, best known by Wild Cards readers as the creator of Yeoman, gives us a look back at 1969 and that year’s World Series…and the origin of the most loathed secret deuce of the present day-Tommy Downs in “Four Days in October”.  Tommy has a secret ace up his sleeve that he discovers-the ability to “smell” people infected with the Wild Card.  Tommy discovers that one of the players of the Brooklyn Dodgers is a secret ace!  The boy, working for The Weekly Gospel, decides to try to discover which player it is, and to expose him (for journalistic purposes, not nefarious ones!).  One of the rather interesting notes of Wild Card history is that one of the prominent players of the Dodgers is someone who took a very different turn in real life (but I won’t spoil that for anyone who doesn’t already know yet).

“Walking the Floor Over You” is written by Walton Simons (best known for Demise), and tells the story of a deuce whose power is to…well, become a puddle.  Bob Cortland runs a club in New York, and gets caught up in all kinds of things when an employee nearly gets kidnapped; it spirals into a blackout and the escape of the giant ape (which is a neat reference to Simons’s other character).  I have to give Simons credit for this one; it ain’t easy to find ways for puddling to work as a power, but he does it!  And I liked the banter between Bob and his fellow deuce, Carlotta DeSoto.

“A Face for the Cutting Room Floor” follows one of Melinda Snodgrass’s characters, Bradley Finn; he’s a centaur, and that makes him uniquely qualified to work as a cast member of Jason and the Argonauts.  Actually, casting jokers in this kind of movie makes a great deal of sense, since it cuts down the makeup budget!  Bradley finds himself dodging a fellow interested in making him a star of a somewhat less savory kind of movie, and becoming involved with a mystery involving Grace Kelley, who hasn’t aged a day.  It gives an iffy impression of Hollywood, though, as some of the things that go on in this story are rather cutthroat!  It’s an interesting look at the life of a joker who’ll become a respected member of the Jokertown Clinic in the future.

Daniel Abraham pens “Father Henry’s Little Miracle”, and it features Father Henry Obst, who fills in for Father Squid during the WHO world tour chronicled in the fourth book.  His deuce really doesn’t come into play in this story, except to establish what it is; the story involves Father Henry’s work during a mob war in New York.  It also features Demise, and the most interesting attempt to get around his killing power.  This one was more about saving souls than saving lives, but the two do not prove to be mutually exclusive.

Stephen Leigh covers a minor character in the Card Sharks books in “Promises”.  Gary Bushorn flew a pair of folks to Britain, and was lost in Ireland; he wasn’t really supposed to do that, though, and the authorities decide that instead of making a really public and unpleasant arrest in front of a number of jokers, they choose to make the entire town of Rathlin his prison.  Gary adapts to life in the town, but keeps trying to find a way to evade the authorities and escape back to the life he knew; it also has a fairly significant subplot as he becomes involved with a woman whose Wild Card is slowly killing her.  It’s actually rather touching.

My favorite of the batch, though, is “With a Flourish and a Flair” by Kevin Andrew Murphy.  This features an artist going by the handle of “Swash”, whose nails create ink that forms art.  He’s a bit involved in the goth culture, and becomes inadvertently involved with the ace Topper, whose hat has been stolen.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that the hat is her ace “crutch”.  The pair try to follow the trail which leads to a goth club, with a feature band called “the Jokertown Boys”.  It also features a bunch of cameo appearances that many longtime readers will appreciate.

For the most part, Deuces Down can stand alone; the early stories certainly don’t require knowledge of the series, and even the later ones don’t truly depend on the original series.  While I was disappointed not to see the follow ups I’d hoped for, I found this book enjoyable, and certainly hope that the authors continue to write new Wild Cards books.

(2012 note: the funny thing about this review is that a site linking to the old Archive took a portion of this review and considered it a pan; clearly, they didn’t read the entire review.  My first time having my reviews taken out of context!)

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Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin

I can’t die yet.  I haven’t seen The Jolson Story.

Novels on super powered people aren’t new.  This series predated a good chunk of the latest crop, though, and was a damned good series to boot.  Now it’s been re-released, and with a couple of caveats, I’ll recommend it to anyone interested in either super-powers or science fiction, because Wild Cards partakes of both.

This book covers time from 1946 to the 80’s.  It’s at the end of the War that Earth gets it’s first extraterrestrial visitor, Prince Tisianne of Ilkazam, or as he quickly becomes known as, Doctor Tachyon.  His goal is to prevent his family from the planet Takis from releasing a virus upon humanity-a virus that would change it forever.  Things don’t work quite out as planned; the virus kills 90% of those it infects in all kinds of unpleasant ways.  9% are changed horribly, mutated in forms from nightmares-and 1% gain powers above and beyond mortal ken, as they say.  The virus comes to be called the Wild Card virus; the dead draw the Black Queen; the mutated draw Jokers.  The lucky ones draw Aces.

Wild Cards is an anthology series, which means a number of authors are writing short stories that cover the entire span of time.  This also means we get a good look at a bunch of different personalities, from the nobility of the Great and Powerful Turtle (yeah, I know, what’s in a name, but on the other hand, it fits), to the rather despicable acts of Puppetman.  The stories cover all over the late 20th century; from post WW2, to the days of the McCarthy hearings, to the hippie movement, to the Presidential primaries of ’76.

Because of the nature of this book, some authors have better stories than others.  I found myself particularly fond of “The Sleeper” by Walter Jon Williams, which takes place in the early days of the coming of the virus, and shows how a young boy is changed by the Wild Card into something rather unusual, even for the virus.  “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” is more about Robert Tomlin, a jet pilot who was stranded on an island during the last year of World War II, and is written in the tradition of the old serials.  And “Shell Games”, by George R. R. Martin and set shortly after the assassination of JFK, shows the beginning of the career of the Great and Powerful Turtle.

Interspersed about the book are small sections showing the impact that the Wild Card has had on history.  Between the prologue, which gives a hint of how it all begins, to a discussion on the McCarthy hearings, to Wild Card Chic, we get a fairly good idea of how things are a little different because of the Wild Card-and how some things still remained the same.  I rather liked that touch, personally.

This isn’t a books for younger readers; if nothing else, there’s a lot of language that you do not want youngsters using, and a significant number of characters aren’t really the type of people you want to emulate.  My other problem with unreservedly recommending this book is the price tag; while I usually don’t remark on it, it’s a pretty steep tag for a book that came out originally in normal paperback form for half the price.  If you can find this in a used book store, I’d recommend you pick it up there; from what I can see, you only miss a few illustrations, and really, the stories don’t need them.

(2012 note:  pricing has much improved with the latest printing on Amazon.)

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