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High Stakes (Wild Cards)
Edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Cover Artist: Michael Komarck
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765335623
Date: 23 August 2016 List Price $27.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

It's hell on Earth--literally.

A dying ace links our world to a dimension of madness and horror. That other world is beginning to bleed through--and even the Committee, with all its ace heroes, may be powerless to stop it.

Such is the situation in High Stakes, the newest Wild Cards mosaic novel from George R.R. Martin, Melinda Snodgrass, and a half-dozen very talented writers. With Detective Francis "Franny" Black trapped in Kyrgyzstan at ground zero of this horrific incursion, Marcus "Infamous Black Tongue" Morgan and Mollie "Tesseract" Steunenberg are busy running from the ace crime boss known as Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga ran an underground fight club for aces and jokers in her casino, using the turbulent emotional energy to forestall disaster. But now that Franny, Marcus and others have broken up her fight club, everything is going to hell, fast.

Back in New York, Lohengrin and Babel, leaders of the Committee, are working through some issues. Lohengrin wants to be in the field fighting. Babel, on the other hand, is a natural administrator with better strategic insight. Lohengrin at first dismisses the warnings coming from Talas (in Kyrgyzstan)--reports of mass psychosis, rioting and worse--but then switches gears, because this sounds like it could be exciting. And although Babel championed investigating this situation, she fears that they do not know nearly enough about it.

Meanwhile, Michelle "Amazing Bubbles" Pond is coping with being a single mom to a joker daughter and with a long-distance relationship with the prickly Hoodoo Mama. Neither is easy, and even the money from her modeling gigs doesn't make everything better. She is worried about her daughter's nightmares; she does not want to go to Talas, but is prevailed upon by the U.N. General Secretary, who shares an uncomfortable secret that compels her assistance.

Mollie uses her teleporting abilities to cross the world, committing a variety of small crimes, until she realizes that the upheaval in Talas means a potentially huge score awaits. She invites her family to help, which brings them consequences nobody could have imagined. Mollie also struggles with residual psychotic urges, culminating in a traumatic incident.

Marcus, with a lovely ex-employee of Baba Yaga's, discovers sanctuary among a remote village of jokers. When the chaos boils out of Talas, however, he gets them on the road toward a place of dubious safety. It's a question what will be the greatest danger: the Russian soldiers, his new lover's dangerous father, or the monsters who are marching on the spaceport.

Investigating the disappearance of Agent Jamal "Stuntman" Norwood, Midnight Angel follows the trail to Jokertown and then on to Kyrgyzstan. Once there, however, the devout ace discovers that she is in mortal danger.

The Committee's own first team lands; almost immediately, they find their perceptions and emotional states scrambled, using their powers erratically and even manically. Babel tries to keep them together remotely but finds that to be impossible.

What lies inside Talas is a Lovecraftian nightmare dialed up to 11. Atrocities and nightmares escalate, driving the characters to their limits. Passing through Talas, they see images they cannot get past. And the hero they need most is the one most affected.

As Franny struggles to survive his time with Baba Yaga, Marcus prepares his charges for battle, and a handful of aces fight against their darkest impulses, the world is on the precipice of catastrophe. It will all come down to a desperate plan that should not work. But unless it does, the Earth itself is damned.

If it sounds as though there is a lot going on in this book, well, there is. Clocking in at 552 pages, it's one of the longest Wild Cards books--and one of the very best, too. It is superheroes versus In the Mouth of Madness, on a global scale. Reality is breaking down, people are becoming monsters and no one can trust their own thoughts. With this affecting wild carders no less than normal humans, what further destruction might be wrought? Well, George R.R. Martin and his crew go there.

The horror in these stories, all written individually and then woven together by Martin and Snodgrass, is visceral, intimate and overwhelming. Each character must fight to overcome their base desires, and some do not succeed. In their darkest hour, some will stand and some will fall...and it's not always who you'd expect.

What sets the book apart, to me, is that this is perhaps the clearest, deepest exploration of heroism yet attempted in a Wild Cards novel. There have been heroes in the past, certainly, but the characters here have not been tested in this way ever. When the corrupting effects of this dimensional breach are first experienced, those who make it out are overwhelmed with revulsion and even self-loathing. They know what going into Talas will do to them--and yet, the truly heroic go back anyway. This is the essence of heroism; not powers, not toughness, just the willingness to do the right thing no matter the personal cost. The series has rarely gone this far in delving into the self-sacrificing nature of heroism, and this novel makes the entire series all the better for it.

With powerhouse entries from David Anthony Durham, Stephen Leigh, John Jos. Miller, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Caroline Spector, and Ian Tregillis, the story bobs and weaves, building in tension and accelerating toward a shattering finale. This is truly one of the most breathtaking moments of the entire series, where it is on one character to make a difference. And readers will likely be very surprised by the aftermath left in the wake of this story.

Not a hopping-on point by any means, this book is a strong culmination to the current arc, ending with several characters adrift and at least one group perhaps irretrievably broken. It's unexpected but a great close to the book, leaving readers wondering "What's next?" I know I am.

Highly recommended.

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