I've been a fan of the Wild Cards books since they started coming out in 1987. The premise is simple and elegant: an alien virus is let loose in 1946, killing nine out of ten infected, transforming nine out of ten survivors in a random but bizarre fashion, and leaving that final one-in-a-hundred seemingly untouched... yet endowed with some amazing superpower.
There have been 17 books (from three publishers) in the series, edited by George R.R. Martin (visit his site!) and Melinda Snodgrass (visit her site!). The series grew out of the authors gathering to play a superhero roleplaying game and finally deciding that, being writers, they'd better make some money out of this time-consuming hobby. Publication of the titles trailed off, with the last two releases in 2002 and 2006.
Now, however, the Wild Cards are back.
INSIDE STRAIGHT is the new mosaic novel (collection of interwoven short stories) by this writing group, which includes a handful of new writers amid the veterans. It begins with an assassination in Baghdad, zips to the other side of the world for the debut of a wild cards-based reality show, and ends on the bloody killing fields of Egypt.
Although there are cameos from established characters (such as Golden Boy), the stories introduce a number of terrific new characters:
- Jonathan Hive (aka Bugsy), a blogger who can turn into a cloud of green wasps;
- Lohengrin, a knight armored in "ghost steel" who answers the call of duty wherever it leads;
- Rustbelt, an ironclad Minnesotan who faces a monstrous injustice... and makes a momentous decision;
- Amazing Bubbles, whose career lies in ruins after her wild card turns;
- Drummer Boy, a superstrong and six-armed joker who fronts a rock band;
- Curveball, the "girl next door" who plays to win;
- Lilith, a mysterious British ace; and
- Stuntman, a kid who never quite measured up to his athlete dad's expectations, but has an opportunity to become the first American Hero.
Also featured is John Fortune, stripped of his uncontrollable powers by his father Fortunato, who now wants to gain back what he's lost. He has a shot at it, thanks to an amulet given to his mother Peregrine (a famous wild card known for her beauty and her huge white wings). Putting it on opens a world of possibilities... and takes him into the path of terrible danger. Backed by Bugsy and Lohengrin, Fortune chooses to embrace his destiny and heads for Egypt, where the Living Gods (jokers who resemble the Egyptian pantheon) have asked for his help.
You see, as mentioned, the adventure begins with an assassination. The Caliph, ruler of a multi-state Muslim empire, is murdered and a joker terrorist group is framed for the crime. This leads to a horrifying retaliation against Egypt's joker population, a situation that at first seems to be a background element but takes center stage very quickly. (Long-time readers of the series will get an Easter egg, of sorts, as the Caliph is a well-established character from a long time back.)
Up front is the debut of reality show American Hero, pitting 28 aces (divided into four teams) against each other and judged by aces Digger Downs, Harlem Hammer and Topper. Situations are created and the teams must react--with failure meaning each losing team has to "discard" a player. (Yes, the card imagery is still in full force herein.)
The show provides a snapshot of aces in 2008 America. Many of them are celebrities because of what they are (that is, superpowered), not who they are; Bugsy blogs about this at length in the very opening of the book. This becomes an extremely important point, as the entire book turns upon one question:
What is a hero?
As the book splits between the trio (or quartet?) in Egypt and the dwindling cast of AH in Hollywood, the importance of the question grows more clear by the page. Each character has a moment of truth, when they can be a hero or not. Some of these are exceptionally poignant, as a handful step up; the others either fail this test of character (one spectacularly so) or opt out entirely.
A small group of ace volunteers joins Fortune, Bugsy and Lohengrin in Egypt, as two armies converge on Aswan and the masses of joker refugees taking shelter there. There's a Magnificent Seven quality to this final act, which ends in desperate battle and none left unchanged (and several dead) before it's all over.
It's an ambitious book with a lot to say. Wild Cards as a series hasn't shied away from social commentary (in the context of alternate history), but this is perhaps the most head-on tackling of real world issues and the theme of heroism that the series has yet attempted. In a way, it harks back to "Witness" by Walter Jon Williams, one of the very first WC tales. That was about the Four Aces, a team assembled by an altruist and set loose on the world stage in the 1950s; now, the stakes are higher, but the underlying problem is the same: can wild card powers solve world crises? Can those with power stand aside and do nothing while terrible things happen?
What is a hero? By the end of this book, the true heroes are revealed--and a new age dawns for the children of the wild card.
What can I say? I loved this book.
Look for the SFRevu review in January 2008.