Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jokers Wild - George R.R. Martin

Jokers Wild is the third volume in the long-running Wild Cards series. The twenty-second volume titled Lowball will be released by Tor sometime this summer. To coincide with the release of new Wild Cards books, Tor is reissuing the first three novels in the series as well. These novels are written by a writer's collective in a style that they refer to as mosaic. Most of the novels are written by a group of writers, and Martin (increasingly assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass) edits them into one story. The series has gone though several changes in publisher but, partially carried by the success of Martin himself in recent years, seems to be going strong at the moment. I have only read the first two volumes, The Committee triad and the most recently published novel Fort Freak but I do intend to read them all eventually. This third volume was first published in 1987 and features contributions by Leanne C. Harper, Lewis Shiner, John J. Miller, Edward Bryant, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Walton Simons and George R.R. Martin himself.

Jokers Wild takes place on Wild Cards day 1986, the 40th anniversary of the release of the virus. The day has become something of an odd combination of remembrance and celebrating in recent years, and New York is flooded by tourists coming to witness the celebrations. Not everybody is in a mood to party however. Jack Robicheaux is looking for his teenage niece who ran away from home. Elsewhere Jennifer Maloy, accomplished burglar, unwittingly steals a very valuable little book, greatly upsetting the mobster it belongs to. To make an already chaotic day even more troubling, the Astronomer is out for revenge after his recent defeat at the hands of a group of Aces. Wild Cards day is never a quiet day in New York but this year it will be one to remember.

The entire story is set in one 24 hour period, a way of storytelling that is almost always all or nothing with me. The pace with which events unfold is so rapid that it can easily go at the expense of character development or coherency of the plot. Of course Wild Cards is inspired by comic books, larger than life archetypes, overdrawn emotions and clear good and evil contrast is to be expected to an extend. Jokers Wild manages to pull it off in my opinion but not without leaning heavily on the previous volume Aces High. It is most definitely not a good entry point into the series. The first three volumes, all published in 1987, were most likely planned in one go. It will be interesting to see how much the next couple of books rely on what has gone before.

Each of the authors has a central character with Martin, who writes the point of view of the owner of the the Aces High restaurant Hiram Worchester, tying them all together. Although the missing girl and the stolen book subplots intersect with the Astronomer story line in several places, it is the Astronomer who is central to the novel. Despite his defeat in the previous book, he is still very powerful and out for revenge. It's in this character that the comic book nature of the Wild Cards series shows most clearly. Where most of the characters have at least some redeeming characteristics, the Astronomer is all evil. His aim is to take out the group of Aces that defeated him before Wild Cards day is over and it doesn't take long for the message to get across.

All of the other Wild Cards novels I've read up to this point, deal with discrimination at some level. There is an interesting parallel with the treatment of AIDS patients in the 1980s, when fear of what was back then still a death sentence, resulted in many patients ending up completely isolated. In Jack's storyline it is even briefly touched upon. In this novel the victims of the Wild Cards virus let off some steam. They take over the city. Most of the action takes place among the victims of the virus so the discrimination is not quite as obvious in this novel. There is an undertone of Wild Cards days slowly turning into a freak show however. As with everything to do with the virus the celebration has a distinct dark side to it.

I must admit I'm quite impressed with the way in which the authors have managed to create a credible alternative history of New York, created a number of new landmarks in the city and give the city an impression of the colourful and tragic part of town where the Jokers band together. It's vibrant in a way but also a place where criminal activity comes to the surface and desperation is always present. In terms of setting I think they've done a wonderful job. The Wild Cards world holds infinite possibilities for more stories and the authors don't seem to be shy about using it for a bit of social commentary.

That being said, the novel does show some of the shortcomings of a work with so many authors. In depth characterization is mostly absent and here and there, fault lines in the style of writing are noticeable. Martin has done a wonderful job in editing it so the very compressed time line of the novel makes sense however. It must have been particularly challenging to get everything to fit in just a twenty-four hour time span. It's not the most challenging reading material but it is fast and fun and hard to put down once you've started. I don't think it is quite as good as either Aces High or Fort Freak but a decent entry in the series nonetheless. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing Tor reissue some more of the older Wild Cards books.

Book Details
Title: Jokers Wild
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2617-1
First published: 1987

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