Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ex Libris: Wild Cards: Inside Straight & Busted Flush

If there's one shared worlds series that's still going strong and is not a media tie-in like Star Wars or Dragonlance, it's the Wild Cards series.

In this alternate history of the world, an alien virus falls into the hands of an evil genius at the end of the World War 2. Unfortunately, the world's only hero, Jet Boy, fails to thwart his plan and the virus spreads. The virus itself is a mixed blessing: 90 percent of those who contract the virus die immediate and horrible deaths called the Black Queen; nine percent become disfigured and scarred horribly but survive to become Jokers; a good one percent realize tremendous powers that seem drawn out of comic books and become Aces. And the world is forever changed.

The latest iteration I've read of this series is Inside Straight and Busted Flush, both edited by George R.R. Martin. These two books are an improvement from the earlier novel Death Draws Five by John J. Miller (which I reviewed here). With these two books, Martin-- as editor-- goes back to the mosaic-style novel that the series had earlier been structured on.

(What's a mosaic-style novel? As with the previous Wild Card books, writers draw individual stories of each character with Martin sewing the stories together either via a running storyline or just plain editing. Whew! How's that for editing prowess? As an added note, Martin has a story in Inside Straight but not in Busted Flush.)

One thing I liked before about the Wild Cards series is how much it tries to keep its timeline similar to our own reality. In Inside Straight, the world of Wild Cards gets a great big heaping of reality television in the form of American Hero, a search for the next big superhero.

I applaud Martin (and his writers) for using this method of introducing new readers to the world of Wild Cards even as characters from the previous books (like Peregrine and Digger Downs), make their appearance to please older fans. Here, twenty-eight new Aces and Jokers (like Stuntman, Holy Roller and Bubbles) vie for the top spot in the contest to become the first American Hero. Juxtaposed with this main story thread-- and in comparison to the unreality of reality TV-- is a secret war between factions (England, the US and the United Arab Emirates) in the Middle East over the control of the prized oil fields.

Fortunately, a number of the characters-- including Jonathan Hive, Earth Witch, Drummer Boy, and Curveball-- leave their chance for TV fame and fortune to head off an impending Middle East war. In the mix is a British double agent named Double Helix (a literal double agent as he/she is also two characters in one) and a Joker pantheon of self-styled Egyptian gods. Some survive the climax to become real-life superheroes while others die in battle.

In Busted Flush, the survivors of the previous book led by the troubled John Fortune have been conscripted by the United Nations to become a task force that would help in hot spots around the world. Current events in our world that appear in this book include the global gas shortage, tropical storm Katrina's battering of New Orleans, and the genocides in Nigeria.

Of course, since this is the Wild Card universe, expect a whole lot of Wild Card troubles as well. These include a boy who can explode like a nuclear bomb, the undead rising, and the emergence of a shadowy Ace from the Wild Cards' tumultuous past: the Radical. But is it really him or is it a new Ace who's bent on taking the name and the legacy of the revered hero?

Overall, I like the look and feel of the stories in this revitalization of the Wild Cards series. I've been a big fan of the series from its 12-book original lineup with Bantam to the three-book new cycle with Baen. Unfortunately, I've not yet gotten a copy of the hard-to-find standalone anthology Deuces Down but I was sorely disappointed with Death Draws Five.

Obviously, the new reader may have a hard time jumping into these two books as a lot of characters and references are drawn from the older works. For these readers, you can have two options: (a) slog it out as you'll eventually be drawn into the stories themselves, or (b) read the first 15 books for some great superhero action.

But for the older fans of the series, you don't have anything to worry about as Martin again shows his sure hand in guiding the stories. Granted not all the stories are great but it's the overall reading experience that makes the Wild Cards universe one of the best series in the genre today. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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