Busted Flush is the nineteenth entry in the Wild Cards series of mosaic novels edited by George R.R. Martin. The previous book, Inside Straight is something of a new beginning for the series, a new trilogy with new characters and a couple of new writers. It's a good point to get started. A lot of the earlier novels are out of print so it would take a bit of effort to round all of them up. Inside Straight was not something I would normally read. I'm not a huge fan of comics to begin with and the bunch of lousy movies they've been turned into recently doesn't help. I had to admit is was an interesting read however. Unfortunately Busted Flush falls short of the standard set in the first book of the Committee trilogy a bit.
The story picks up some time after the events in Inside Straight. The UN secretary-general has snapped up the new American heroes after their dramatic performance in Egypt and formed the Committee. A group of Aces dealing with everything from genocide to natural disasters. And there is plenty of work, our heroes are spread thin. In fact, the cracks in their organisation are clearly beginning to show. There is no time for rest however, a crisis is developing in Africa, where the People's Paradise of Africa and Nigeria are headed for armed conflict. Most inconvenient, Nigeria's oil is in great demand now that the Caliphate is driving up oil prices and crippling western economies. Here too the Committee is called upon to save the day. A third party heads out to New Orleans where a particularly bad hurricane season is creating all manner of problems for the local populations. Will these small groups of Aces be up to the huge challenges the UN has set them?
Like the previous book, this mosaic novel is written by nine people. A slightly different crew than last time: S.L. Farrell, Victor Milán, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Walton Simmons, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis and Carrie Vaughn. Martin himself has limited his role to editing in this volume. Again who has written what is clearly indicated in the book and again Martin assisted by Snodgrass have done a fine job of making the book work stylistically. I have more problems with the plot however.
At one point in the book we have most of the main characters at one place before the story branches out. There are three main challenges the Committee faces but the other parties all have their own plans as well. Besides the African revolutionaries and the Arab rules there are two western government agencies involved in the story as well. All of these get their share of attention turning the novel into a mosaic for real. These little pieces are interconnected of course and they do build a surprisingly complex picture. What they fail to do is turn the book into one story.
The assignment in the Middle East for instance, feels like a loose thread in the story. Although there is some development in some of the characters, a couple of people have it pointed out to them that politics are not as black and white as they were lead to believe, events there don't really add much to the overall story. The authors don't manage to really connect this thread to the things that go on in the finale of the book either. I had some problems with the idea of the Caliphate as well. We tend to see the Arab world as one block of nations in the west. In reality they rarely agree on anything though. Sometimes on oil prices but even that is a stretch a lot of the time. Several attempts in the last century to unify two or more Arab nations have failed miserably. Mostly because each of the respective nations' leaders feels they should be in charge of the whole. And then there is the fact that there are a lot of people in that region quite prepared to underline their own political or religious ideas with a Kalashnikov if need be. The Caliphate is a very unlikely bit of fiction.
The situation in Central-Africa worked a lot better for me. Clearly based on the enormous mess we think of as the First and Second Congo war, some of the bloodiest and most brutal fighting in recent history, it injects a dose of gritty political realism into the story. Not that I think a (nominally) Marxist revolution would have any more success controlling Congo than the factions currently fighting over the region but the brutal fighting and chilling disregard for human suffering hit close to home. Martin et al. are not afraid of exposing the role a number of outside factions play in the conflict either. The way the world deals with Africa isn't pretty and that message clearly echoes though this part of the novel.
I guess this novel shows the limits of the Wild Cards approach. This book is graced with some very good writing, a number of good action scenes and a fair number of interesting ideas, superpowers and characters. The plot is all over the place however. The Wild Cards collective has failed to make this book into one novel. For the real Wild Cards fan there is still plenty to enjoy compared to the previous entry it isn't a very strong book. Maybe it suffers from the middle book syndrome a bit? Perhaps some of the loose ends will be dealt with in the final book of this trilogy, Suicide Kings, but even that is not going to turn Busted Flush into a truly satisfying read.
Title: Busted Flush
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
First published: 2008