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Inside Straight by George R.R. Martin (Editor)
Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765317810
Date: 22 January 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Interview with George R.R. Martin & Melinda Snodgr / Show Official Info /

In 1946, an alien virus-bomb exploded over New York City. Ninety percent of those infected died sudden, horrifying deaths. Nine out of ten survivors were visibly changed in some way, large or small, that set them apart from humanity. That final one in one hundred won the lottery, earning a superpower while being outwardly the same as before.

The decades between 1946 and the mid-1990s saw the world transformed by these "wild cards". But how do things stand in 2008? It's time to answer that question.

The Wild Cards are back.

Inside Straight is the new mosaic novel (collection of interwoven short stories) by this writing ensemble, with a handful of terrific new writers amid the veterans. It begins with an assassination in Baghdad, zips to the other side of the world for the debut of a wild cards-based reality show, and ends on the bloody killing fields of Egypt. If that isn't enough to get your attention ... well, things are only getting warmed up.

Although there are cameos by and mentions of established characters (such as Peregrine, the Turtle, Golden Boy, and Detroit Steel), the stories introduce a number of great new characters:

  • Jonathan Hive (aka Bugsy), a blogger who can turn into a cloud of green wasps;
  • Lohengrin, a knight armored in "ghost steel" who answers the call of duty wherever it leads;
  • Rustbelt, an ironclad Minnesotan who faces a monstrous injustice ... and makes a momentous decision;
  • Amazing Bubbles, whose career lies in ruins after her wild card turns;
  • Drummer Boy, a superstrong and six-armed joker who fronts a rock band;
  • Curveball, the "girl next door" who plays to win;
  • Lilith, a mysterious British ace; and
  • Stuntman, a kid who never quite measured up to his athlete dad's expectations, but has an opportunity to become the first American Hero.
Also featured is John Fortune, stripped of his uncontrollable powers by his father Fortunato, who now wants to gain back what he's lost. He has a shot at it, thanks to an amulet given to his mother Peregrine (a famous wild card known for her beauty and her huge white wings). Putting it on opens a world of possibilities ... and takes him into the path of terrible danger. Backed by Bugsy and Lohengrin, Fortune chooses to embrace his destiny and heads for Egypt, where the Living Gods (jokers who resemble the Egyptian pantheon) have asked for his help.

You see, as mentioned, the adventure begins with an assassination. The Caliph, ruler of a multi-state Muslim empire, is murdered and a joker terrorist group is framed for the crime. This leads to a horrifying retaliation against Egypt's joker population, a situation that at first seems to be a background element but takes center stage very quickly. (Longtime readers of the series will get an Easter egg, of sorts, as the Caliph is a well-established character from a long time back.)

Up front is the debut of reality show American Hero, pitting 28 aces (divided into four teams) against each other and judged by aces Digger Downs, Harlem Hammer, and Topper. Situations are created and the teams must react -- with failure meaning each losing team has to "discard" a player. (Yes, the card imagery is still in full force here.)

The show provides a snapshot of aces in 2008 America. Many of them are celebrities because of what they are (that is, superpowered), not who they are; Bugsy blogs about this at length in the very opening of the book. This becomes an extremely important point, as the entire book turns upon one question:

What is a hero?

As the book splits between the trio (or quartet?) in Egypt and the dwindling cast of AH in Hollywood, the importance of the question grows more clear by the page. Each character has a moment of truth, when they can be a hero or not. Some of these are exceptionally poignant, as a handful step up; the others either fail this test of character (one spectacularly so) or opt out entirely.

A small group of ace volunteers joins Fortune, Bugsy and Lohengrin in Egypt, as two armies converge on Aswan and the masses of joker refugees taking shelter there. There's a Magnificent Seven quality to this final act, which ends in desperate battle and none left unchanged (and several dead) before it's all over.

I've been a fan of the Wild Cards books since they started coming out in 1987. There have been 17 books (from three publishers) in the series, edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass (see the accompanying interview here). The series grew out of the authors gathering to play a superhero role-playing game and finally deciding that, being writers, they'd better make some money out of this time-consuming hobby. Publication of the titles trailed off, with the last two releases in 2002 and 2006.

It's great to see the series is back and better than ever.

Since this is a set of connected short stories, let's get to what's good. "Crusader" by George R.R. Martin is a standout, offering Lohengrin's view of the genocide and his struggle to stand against it, where so many other "heroes" are only in the game to get rich and famous. "Looking for Jetboy" by Michael Cassutt and "Tin Man's Lament" by Ian Tregillis are also terrific, offering contrasting versions of events that transpire around Stuntman and Rustbelt. These two stories between them also sharpen the distinctions that Martin and company choose to draw among their characters.

"Chosen Ones" by Carrie Vaughn and "Metagames" by Caroline Spector hit home because both stories lend new dimension to the heroism question. The first features Ana Cortez (aka Earth Witch) and what she went through to become a contestant; the second revolves around Amazing Bubbles, who has a remarkable backstory of her own ... and learns a new definition of the word "hero."

Melinda Snodgrass has a considerable challenge in two stories, "Dark of the Moon" and "Star Power". She takes on framing the story from the outset, then keeps things moving, laying the groundwork for the next two books. She sets up an intriguing pair of new aces and generates an international context that will figure greatly in upcoming stories. While I miss her best-known creation, Dr. Tachyon, the new duo start off as major players ... but on whose side?

Daniel Abraham has a big responsibility, too, in "Jonathan Hive"; set up as entries in Bugsy's blog, this story forms the interstitial material between the other stories. Jonathan's commentary runs from blasé to embittered, scornful to scared, resigned to relieved. He's the human heart of the story, doing what great journalists throughout time have done: give a human face to massive suffering, call down the eyes of the world on tragedy, and force the perpetrators of atrocity into the light.

And then there's "Wakes the Lion" by John Jos. Miller, wherein John Fortune comes face to face with a destiny he never could have imagined. Picking up threads from Miller's 2006 novel, Death Draws Five, Fortune's story shifts gears and takes some very unexpected directions.

The story wraps up, for the most part, in "Incidental Music for Heroes" by S.L. Farrell, wherein a handful of wild carders (and one in particular) takes on very long odds indeed for some very high stakes. There have been stories in Wild Cards before involving epic-scale combat -- but this is perhaps the best of them.

This is a terrific re-launch for the series. Inside Straight is an ambitious book with a lot to say. Wild Cards hasn't shied away from social commentary (in the context of alternate history), but this is perhaps the most head-on tackling of real-world issues -- the genocides in Africa, in this case -- and the theme of heroism that the series has yet attempted. In a way, it harks back to "Witness" by Walter Jon Williams, one of the very first WC tales. That was about the Four Aces, a team assembled by an altruist and set loose on the world stage in the 1950s; now, the stakes are higher, but the underlying problem is the same: can wild card powers solve world crises? Can those with power stand aside and do nothing while terrible things happen?

What is a hero? By the end of this book, the true heroes are revealed -- and a new age dawns for the children of the wild card.

Strongly recommended.

For more on the Wild Cards series, check out this new site!

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