I have read pretty much everything by George R.R. Martin I have been able to get my hands on. That is not to say I have read everything he has written, some of his short fiction is pretty hard to find these days. Another notable omission is the Wild Cards project he co-wrote and edited. The year 2008 saw the (second?) rebirth of this series of 'mosaic' novels, a series of books set in a shared universe, written by several authors. The first part appeared in 1987, Inside Straight is book 18. Normally I wouldn't start a series at book 18 but many of the previous books have been out of print for a while. I understand Tor means to reissue some of the older ones in omnibus editions but I can't find a publication date for the first one. To make this 18th book a good entry point Martin and his companions created something of a Wild Cards: the Next Generation to reboot the series.
What do you need to know about the back story of the Wild Cards? Not a lot really. In 1946 an alien virus hit earth. It killed ninety percent of those infected, disfigured nine percent and left a lucky one percent with superhuman powers. The unlucky nine percent are referred to as Jokers while the ones with interesting powers are the Aces and have influenced to course of history and politics considerably. By 2007, the year in which Inside Straight is set, some of them have attained fame and wealth. At the same time their less fortunate fellows are still very much discriminated against. Many of them live in poverty.
For some 1946 is a long time ago, the world has grown used to the virus and the Aces it has created. Why, someone in Hollywood thinks they are fine material for a reality TV-show. Thus American Hero is born. It pits a number of, mostly, young Aces against each other in staged contests. The series is a hit and prime fodder for the entertainment press. Fights, sex, relationships and backstabbing predictably ensue. Not everybody is distracted by the TV-show however. Contestant and early discard Jonathan Hive develops an interest in events taking place in Egypt, where the assassination of an Arab Caliph has resulted in a severe outbreak of anti-Joker violence. He figures it is better to be a hero in real life than pretend to be one on television.
Wild Cards is clearly the result of the young George Martin's love for comics. Superhero comics isn't something that has become very big on this side of the Atlantic. If you look for them they are available of course but it is not quite as big a cultural influence as it is in the United States. That puts me at a bit of a disadvantage. Superheroes are supposed to act a certain way and I am sure I will miss some of that. Just ignore it if I include a silly comment into the review. I did suffer from one quite unwanted association. The abbreviation of American Hero (AH) is also the name of the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands. I tell you, this book conspires not to let me take it seriously!
I must admit it does take some getting used to. For this superhero stuff suspension of disbelief simply is not enough. You have to blindly accept the powers some of the Aces have as some of it is complete nonsense. The Crusader for instance can create an impenetrable armour and a sword that will cut though any known substance, there is an Ace who can change himself into a swarm of wasps, an Ace who changes kinetic energy into bodyweight and we even encounter a magic amulet. Once you get past that hurdle it is very entertaining reading though.
The advantage of these books over a comic is that you get to see a lot more of what the character is feeling and thinking and Martin has collected a group of authors who flesh out these characters well. They have created quite a volatile mix in the American Heroes contestants. Some of them are angry, selfish, impulsive or plain stupid and it clearly shows in what they do to each other on the show. But, and I guess this is what makes them superheroes, when they really need to, they pull together and pull off the impossible. All things considered it is still a bit of a lightweight and predictable plot but I enjoyed it all the same.
What I really admire about this book is the editing. There are nine contributors to this volume and I guess I should name them somewhere in the review so here we go: Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassut, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R.R. Martin, Ian Tregillis and S.L. Farrell. It must have been one hell of a job to make these people speak with one voice and take into account 17 books of back story. Which sections of the book are written by which author is clearly mentioned, I guess if you really make an effort you can see the differences in style, but I thought is was a pretty smooth ride. I do feel like I missed an awful lot of references to things that have happened in earlier books. Most of the Aces that will be familiar to the fans of the series only play a minor part in the novel, which I am sure will disappoint some readers, but there are still a number of things in the book that made me wonder if I missed something. I guess that was unavoidable given the history of the series. It didn't stop me from understanding what was going.
So is Inside Straight a successful restart of the series? I don't think I can really answer that. It was an entertaining book but not having read any of the others I have no idea how it holds up to what has come before. I do think it is a fast and fun read and a very unusual project. It's definitely a series I want to read more of so expect a review of Busted Flush, the second book in this new trilogy sometime in March.
Title: Inside Straight
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
First published: 2008