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Fort Freak (Wild Cards) by George R.R. Martin
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765325709
Date: 21 June 2011 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Interview with author's of Fort Freak / Show Official Info /

A 30-year old murder, a vigilante who may be out of control, a joker kid who saw the wrong thing and is on the run--there are a million stories in the big city. And some of the strangest ones happen in and around Fort Freak.

The latest Wild Cards mosaic novel, Fort Freak gets back to street level adventure in the neighborhood of Jokertown, home to thousands of jokers--those victims of the wild card who survived, albeit changed in ways great or small.

Ramshead (aka Det. Leo Storgman) is asked by an old flame to take a second look at a long-closed case, after records are mysteriously destroyed. A murder at an eatery called the Rathole doesn't seem worth anyone's time--but as Ramshead digs deeper, against the wishes of his boss and pretty much everyone who ever heard of the place, he finds things don't add up. A joker kid who was gunned down might have been a luckless opportunist; a prominent figure in Jokertown was more involved than anyone suspected; and the motives for the bloody murder come clear at last.

"The Rat Race" by Cherie Priest is the overarching narrative that binds the others together. She has the challenge of presenting Storgman's last great case; he's on the verge of retirement. Once December's done, he's out of the NYPD-- and is somewhat dreading spending his golden years in an "adult community" for jokers that his daughter is creating in Florida. Priest does a great job of keeping the story on track and moving forward, as new elements arise that interact in strange ways.

One such is "The Rook", a story about the arrival of a fresh face to the ranks of Fort Freak. He's Francis "Franny" Xavier Black, the son of a decorated police officer (and former captain of the precinct). He makes some bad enemies his first day, then gets embroiled in solving a wild card crime (consider a superpowered peeping tom). Finally, he's forced to choose between law and justice when a helpless joker girl runs afoul of some very powerful foes. It's a great story, bringing in a perspective not often seen in superhuman fiction--that of the ordinary guy with no powers; Snodgrass deftly weaves in Franny's growing-up and earning some street cred, while making him a likable fellow and solid new arrival in Jokertown.

In "Faith," John Joseph Miller reflects on Father Squid's connection to the murders, including his liking (and maybe something more) for Glowworm (aka Lizzie Wallace). It's a terrific look at a major supporting character of the series, yielding lots about his background and his early days ministering to the huddled masses of Jokertown.

"Snake Up Above/Snake in the Hole/Snake on Fire" by David Anthony Durham presents the story of Marcus Morgan (aka the Infamous Black Tongue), a half-snake joker kid kicked out by his Baltimore family. After he gets mixed up in a violent gang clash, the Oddity is on Marcus's trail. However, the Oddity isn't his biggest problem, after he sees an ace apparently gunned down in cold blood by two cops--and ends up hunted by the NYPD. His story here overlaps with...

"...And All the Sinners Saints" by Victor Milan and Ty Franck, wherein public defender Charles "Flipper" Herriman (burdened with flippers for hands) finds himself a go-between between Marcus and Internal Affairs' own Det. Vince "Ratboy" Marinelli. Ratboy figures Marcus might be innocent--or at least justified in doing what he did. But the problem is going to be getting the kid's side of the story without winding up in some cop's crosshairs. If Flipper and Ratboy between them can't figure out how to deal with bad cop Lu Long, Marcus's life will be measured in days.

An unlikely home is the heart of "Sanctuary" by Mary Anne Mohanraj. Joker stripper Minal needs help, and turns to her ex-lover Michael Stevens, a detective in the Jokertown precinct. But Stevens has a new love, the ace dancer Kavitha and a child Isai. Will Minal's presence shatter Stevens's newfound domestic happiness, especially with dangerous enemies pursuing the young woman?

A fast-talking young Brit is the focus of "More!" by Paul Cornell. Abigail Baker has nothing but bad luck, falling into trouble with the cops over and over again, then getting mixed up with the Sleeper himself. The two of them get entangled in a gang conflict that chases them to Abigail's big break--if she can get out of prison in time. "More!" is probably one of the funniest tales in the Wild Cards canon and marks the debut of a terrific new character.

The Oddity is at the center of "Hope We Die Before We Get Old" by Stephen Leigh. The Oddity is a joker fusion of three people, all of them lovers back in the '70s. But now one of them is having problems--debilitating problems--and this remarkable entity must make some very hard decisions. This is a story unlike any I've read in the "superhuman" genre, addressing an issue that many face daily, with a potential for tragedy unlike anything else. Kudos to Stephen Leigh for drilling to the emotional heart in the space of so few pages.

And finally, "The Straight Man" by Kevin Andrew Murphy puts James McTate (aka SlimJim) on the trail of a devious, clever crook known as the Magpie. The Magpie has successfully stolen objects from nearly everywhere in Jokertown--but how? And why? The answer is an astonishing one, with a clever callback to the series' first story. Murphy creates an engaging, entertaining detective and a very memorable criminal, with an entirely fitting resolution.

The stories are meshed together superbly by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. There isn't a single one that doesn't fit perfectly into place, expanding the Wild Cards world just a bit more.

Fans of great superhuman storytelling will love this new volume, which requires little or no knowledge of the long-running series, but fans will be doubly rewarded as some long-standing characters get their due.

Another great addition to the series!

Highly recommended.

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