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Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad by Wild Cards Trust
Edited by George R.R. Martin
Cover Artist: Michael Komarck
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765335586
Date: 13 January 2015 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Guide to Wild Card Series / Show Official Info /

In 1986, the United Nations' World Health Organization assembles a world tour to investigate the status of those infected by the "wild card" virus. Sen. Gregg Hartmann (himself a hidden ace) leads this delegation, which includes a roster of all-stars such as Dr. Tachyon, Peregrine, Golden Boy, Chrysalis, Troll, and Father Squid.

But what will they see and how will this journey change each and every one of them?

Aces Abroad, first published in 1988, is the fourth book in the long-running Wild Cards anthology series, edited by George R.R. Martin and (often with) Melinda Snodgrass. Set in a world where an alien virus gave a handful of people superpowers and/or amazing transformations, this was the first time the series really explored outside the United States.

The connecting narrative is "The Journal of Xavier Desmond" by George R.R. Martin. These are entries from the diary of a very old joker who is Jokertown's foremost businessman. He describes the genesis of this expedition and offers glimpses behind the scenes. He ties together the other stories, helping exit from some locations and introducing others with skill and flair, and if the coda is a bit melancholy, it's an entirely appropriate and fitting one.

"The Tint of Hatred" by Stephen Leigh is a dominant story in the book. This follows Sen. Gregg Hartmann, aka Puppetman, who has the power to control the emotions of anyone he has touched. A terrible dark secret from his past now threatens to come to light, in the form of avenging angel Sara Morganstern. But will Sara be able to get justice or will she fall prey to Puppetman's manipulations?

Beyond that, however, Hartmann finds himself facing the power of a Middle Eastern despot named Nur al-Allah. The echoes of that encounter resonate through the rest of the book, when the Nur's sister becomes a very important person in Hartmann's life and Sara's quest for revenge is resolved.

Leigh's narrative shapes the context of the story, with geopolitical consequences hinging on Hartmann even as his own secrets are endangered. Desperate and vicious, Hartmann stoops to committing unspeakable crimes in the name of self-protection, even as the tour swirls around him. It's one of the formative stories of the entire canon and Leigh is masterful in his execution of this tale, taking us inside the sick mind of one of the series' most dangerous men.

"Beasts of Burden" by John Joseph Miller takes the tour to Haiti, where a member of the tour has a fateful encounter with Ezili je-Rouge and her dark master. This topples the first domino in a cascade of events ending (in another story) with the death of a major character and the fall of another. Meanwhile, Chrysalis must contend with a voudun priestess who wants to use her--and her resemblance to an infamous Haitian loa--to ignite a coup against the island's despotic ruler.

Leanne C. Harper's "Blood Rights" shows us Mayan twins who come to discover the latent power of their heritage through the wild card. Hunapu and Xbalanque take on the mantles of gods and gather an army to restore Mayan glory in Guatemala. With the tour caught in the middle of an uprising, there may be nothing to do but see how events play out rather than fight against them.

In Peru, Kevin Andrew Murphy's "Warts and All" puts massive and muscular Troll together with Fantasy, the dancer wanted by everyone who sees her dance. Asta Lenser (Fantasy) recruits Howard Mueller (Troll) to help her find and free an abducted child. She tells him that gangsters took the girl and are using her to coerce her family...but that cannot go on long and the girl will surely be killed soon. Troll finds out that there is much more to this situation than meets the eye, as cocaine cartels, Vietnamese gang members and more converge on an estate in the countryside--and it's no fantasy that some will end up dead. Murphy's tale is one of two new additions to the book upon its reissue and it's a standout inclusion.

"Down by the Nile" by Gail Gerstner-Miller brings the tour to Egypt, where a group of jokers are worshiped as reborn Egyptian gods. Peregrine gets some surprising (and unsettling) news, even as a prophecy is made with her at the very center of it. The biggest unknown of all might be one that breaks her heart...but she'll get to learn whether love really does conquer all.

Walton Simons' "The Teardrop of India" brings the tour to India (naturally), where bureaucrat G.C. Jayewardene tries to assure that things will go smoothly. He is also helping a movie crew set up for filming. However, the antics of the Great Ape (whose identity had not yet been revealed) and sundry other problems--including Tamil terrorists and the arrival of Elephant Girl-- throw everything into chaos. The key to solving their problems may lie in whether Tachyon can reverse a wild card transformation, thus uncreating one of the series' best known monsters.

"Down in the Dreamtime", by Edward Bryant, brings New Yorker Cordelia Chaisson into contact with Wyungare, a shaman of the Australian dreamtime. Cordelia must go to Australia to press her corporation's interests over those of the Rev. Leo Barnett, a televangelist who just might be an ace. Along the way, she suffers from vivid nightmares and must endure a long trek through the wastelands, all to confront a powerful monster that exists only in dreams. Along the way, she learns something about herself, life, and maybe even love.

Lewis Shiner's "Zero Hour", set in Japan, catches up with Fortunato, an ace whose power is derived from tantric practices. Peregrine seeks him out to get his help with Hiram Worchester, the ace restaurateur known as Fatman, who's been acting strangely. It turns out Hiram has some serious debts to pay off, to people who aren't known for their understanding and compassion, and so Fortunato must take action--direct and violent action. A nice, fast-paced thrill ride from Mr. Shiner.

"Always Spring in Prague" by Carrie Vaughn, the other new entry in the book, involves Lady Black, a government ace assigned to protect the tour's politicians. She is asked to seek out the joker daughter of a congresswoman's wealthy friends, which leads her into an underworld of art, politics, and youthful enthusiasm, wherein not every revolution involves bullets or bloodshed. With her life-draining powers, Lady Black is unable to touch or be touched--and yet she finds her heart stirred by what she sees around her and wonders if there isn't something more out there for her. A nice, poignant tale by Ms. Vaughn.

Victor Milan's "Puppets" gets Hartmann kidnapped by German terrorists, including a young psychopath named Mackie Messer (whose vibrating hands can slice apart anything). Hartmann must play a very careful game to survive, with an old enemy angling for joker justice, a Russian provocateur attempting to incite trouble and the members of the tour trying their best to help out. It's one of the most epic SNAFUs of the series and a high point of the book.

And lastly, Melinda Snodgrass's "Mirrors of the Soul" introduces Blaise Andrieux, Tachyon's grandson. Readers of Wild Cards have good reason to know that name. Tachyon, consumed with memories and regrets, does not understand the danger this child poses...and he will surely pay for that later. There is political unrest in Paris, and Blaise is held by some truly dangerous people. Tachyon is forced to a reconciliation of sorts with Golden Boy and a peace with his troubled memories of Black Eagle if he wants to get through this one. This story sets up major events further down the line and is a must-read (or re-read) for fans of the ongoing story.

Although it might seem to have been a "done in one" story, Aces Abroad sewed the seeds of enormous changes in the Wild Cards world. No fewer than half a dozen major threats emerged from this one book, with repercussions that would last for another half dozen installments. Considering its importance, it's reprinting (and expansion) is a welcome development.

Highly recommended.

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