Sunday, January 4, 2015

Lowball - George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass

Lowball is the twenty-second installment in the series of Wild Cards mosaic novels. It was announced quite a while ago but for some reason there are more than three years between the release of Fort Freak, to which Lowball is a sequel, and this novel. I wonder what caused the delay. Might have something to do with Martin's availability as editor of the series though. For the first time Melinda M. Snodgrass is on the cover as editor. She has been assisting Martin in that job for quite a while next to her writing contributions. Maybe  Martin decided to spend a little less time on this project in the face of the overwhelming success of A Song of Ice and Fire. I also wonder if there is going to be a third novel about the officers of the 5th precinct, because this one does leave a few storylines dangling. There is a title floating around, High Stakes, but I haven't come across a publication date yet. Only thing I can find about it is an announcement from 2012 on Martin's blog.

New York's 5th precinct, better known as Fort Freak, lies in the heart of Jokertown. It is by any means the most unusual post a police officer could get assigned to. A mixture of people unaffected by the Wild Cards virus and those whom the virus did transform try to keep order in a place that is the home of a great many colourful characters, misfits, criminals and strangely deformed people. New talents show up frequently, making police work extremely challenging. Unorthodox methods to keep everybody in line are common in this precinct. Lately, a great many Jokers, generally people who won't be missed have started disappearing. Nobody is greatly concerned, but Father Squid, the local priest, keeps digging into the matter and, reluctantly, so do the officers at Fort Freak. The case turns out to be much more complicated than the captain expected when he assigned it to his newly promoted detective Francis Black.

As always, the novel is written by a number of different authors, all writing from the point of view of one character. This volume contains contributions by Michael Cassutt, David Anthony Durham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Mary Anne Mohanraj, David D. Levine, Walter Jon Williams, Carrie Vaughn and Ian Tregillis. All of them have previous experience in this shared universe. There doesn't seem to be an obvious frame story this time, several of the sections are split into at least half a dozen pieces. I guess it must have been a pain to edit this one and make everything fit. Then again, that probably goes for all of these novels.

The story can be read independently of everything that has gone before but obviously you get more out of it if you have read more Wild Cards novels, Fort Freak in particular. There are a bunch of references to Fort Freak but nothing that is absolutely necessary to understand the plot. Links to the story of the Committee Triad and a few characters introduced in those books show up as well but again nothing essential. I haven't really found that many links with the older Wild Cards novels I've been reading recently. The authors are really writing for a new generation here.

Martin and Snodgrass have done a fairly good job on the editing. While the point of view changes frequently, the flow of the story feels mostly natural and it builds up to a good climax. Oddly enough it is the contributions that aren't split in many pieces that feel a bit out of place. In particular Ian Tregillis' story No Parking and Carrie Vaughn's piece Once More, for Old Times' Sake feel like they don't fit in with the rest. That is a real shame, I quite liked Tregillis' piece in particular. Both of them are well written but their parts in moving the plot forward don't really feel like they need a separate point of view, or as many pages as the novel dedicates to these storylines. I'm also still not very fond of Mary Anne Mohanraj's Detective Michael Stevens. His character, despite being unaffected by the virus, has to be the most unbelievable in the whole series.

I have a feeling more than a few readers will think the actual plot of the novel feels a bit like a bad movie plot. Something with Jean Claude van Damme in it maybe. It is certainly a bit over the top and not the height of originality. Normally I would probably dislike it but in this case I have to admit it does fit with the comic book background that is the inspiration for this series. The books are all a bit over the top, featuring many characters with superpowers. The perverse purpose to which they are turned in this novel is something that fits the overall setting. David Anthony Durham even turns his story line (Those About to Die) featuring the Infamous Black Tongue into a surprisingly relevant piece as his character, a young black man, struggles to find his place in Jokertown society and stay away from the violence that ruins so many lives in his community.

Lowball is a solid entry into the Wild Cards series. I think it more or less delivers what established readers have come to expect from the series. Like pretty much all of the previous books in this series I've read, it doesn't entirely escape the problems that arise when so many writers work on a single project. The fact that it isn't the work of one author keeps showing and that doesn't always do the novel good. That being said, I thought Lowball was quite an entertaining read, with occasional flashes of very good writing. If you can forgive it the B-movie plot I think you could do worse than pick this one up. It left me hoping Martin and Tor aren't going to make us wait another three years for the next volume.

Book Details
Title: Lowball
Editor: George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 361
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3195-3
First published: 2014

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