Monday, July 24, 2017

Tales from the Bargain BIn - Or how I learned to stop worrying and hate "Forge of the Elders"

We're going to try something new today, faithful blog readers. (OK, reader).  We assume that most other book reviewers carefully read each book  and turn their reviews in after they've read the book. Maybe they wait a few hours to digest what they've read.  Maybe they take notes on the book's plot and themes while their reading. That way they know that their not getting plot details wrong when they sit down to right.

But not all book are created equal. That are some books that are so bad, so painful to read that they simply don't deserve the same level of thought one would put into a review of the classics of literature like The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, and of course,  I Was A White Trash Zombie.  Some books need a taking down by some one who not only doesn't remember the details right but doesn't actually care. That's why I'm giving you a new column called "Tales from the Bargain Bin", a review of terrible books that I bought on the cheap and read some years ago. Because these books really do deserve it...

So to start with we're going to start with libertarian SF writer's, L Neil Smith's novel/manifesto Forge of the Elders. Now, I must admit that I don't share Smith's politics and I worried time that my hatred for this book had something to do with this. Then, I read the Illuminatus trilogy which advocates for anarchy and AE Van Vogt's The Mind Cage which appears to come out in favor of monarchy and dictatorship and I liked both of them. So it's not the shaky politics that I found revolting about Forge of the Elders.

But, let's start with what's good about the book. It has a nice cover. A really, really nice cover. Painted with rich colors, lots off detail, shows the characters, gives the reader an idea of the book's plot. They just don't make covers like that anymore.

Now to the things that are not so good namely, the plot, the characters, the writing.  The plot is set in the far future where America has been taken over by the Soviet Union. (Which is actually pretty prescient come to think of it).  A group of political undesirables are assigned to a space mission to harvest the resources of an asteroid to help sustain the soviet state.

Unfortunately, mostly for the reader, the asteroid is occupied by a group of humans and animal people from a parallel universe.  These animal people are led by the titular Elders, a group of giant libertarian squids.  Among the asteroid dwellers is our hero,  the human Eichra Oran (I don't know if I'm spelling that correctly and I don't care), one of those Randian Ubermensch types who is so perfect and heroic that you kind of find yourself rooting for the villains.

Here's a summary of the story:

CREWMAN: I have doubts about the Communist system but I am afraid to voice them.

EZRA ORTAN: Libertarianism is awesome. You should be a libertarian. Have I mentioned that I am a libertarian today? Libertarian.

TALKING DOG SIDEKICK: I'm a talking dog sidekick.

EVERY MAJOR FEMALE CHARACTER: Oh, Edrard Onan, you're so manly. I must sleep with you.

SHIP'S MORALE OFFICER: I'm a hardline communist. I hate you,  Eckhardt Oman. However, the fact that I am clearly a moron who is not qualified to run an Arby's should make it obvious that I am not the main antagonist and will see the error of my way at the end of the book.

EVIL RUSSIAN CYBORG TRILOBITE MAN: I am the main antagonist. I'm poorly explained and literally come out of nowhere.

READER: Could- could this book be about the Evil Russian Cyborg Trilobite Man instead?

So, yeah, there you have it a book hundreds of a pages long whose only selling point is a character who literally only show up in the last few chapters.  All the rest of the book is basically indistinguishable from reading a political pamphlet passed out by an unhinged man. In fact, reading the pamphlet might actually be less of a waste of your time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 2: Aces High Part 2

Having looked at the interstitial stories in the previous post, we start our look at  the one-off stories with a look at science-fiction grand master Roger Zelazny's contribution to this volume. Unfortunately, like his last contribution, it's the low point of the book.

Zelazny's story, "Ashes to Ashes", continues a plot thread introduced in the interstitial story "Jube" where Jube hires Zelazny's recurring anti-hero, Croyd Crenson, aka the Sleeper, to steal the body of the alien who was killed by the Swarm. Along the way, Croyd discovers that other parties want the body for themselves and have hired another mercenary to find it.

It's harder to put my finger on why this story didn't work for me. Unlike Zelazny's previous Wild Cards story, "The Sleeper", which very little happens, in this story, I felt that almost too much happened. Where as "The Sleeper" gave Croyd a lot of potentially interesting character threads, but ultimately did nothing with them, here we get almost no sense of what drives Croyd at all. He's just another generic lovable rogue, one of a million similar characters who inhabit the realms of fiction, which ultimately makes the story fall flat.

Next up is the story "If Looks Could Kill" by Walton Simons, which is our obligatory villain-story for this volume. This story introduces one of the Wild Cards Universe's long-running villains, James Spector aka Demise. An accountant whose Wild Card virus killed him, an emergency procedure returned him to life with the ability to literally kill people through eye contact.

The story is fairly straight-forward: Demise, on the run for murder, winds up being recruited by the Astronomer to act as an assassin. Demise himself is not a particularly engaging character in his first appearance. He will become a more complex character in the later books  but here he is a psychopath and misogynist who revels in killing. The story is notable, primarily, for a rather shocking human sacrifice sequence which shows just how messed up both Demise and the Astronomer really are. Unfortunately, it's sole purpose seems really just to show us that the bad guys are in fact bad guys, something we already know from reading the earlier stories in this book.

The next story "Winter's Chill", written by Martin himself, is a short character piece  focusing on Thomas Tudbury aka the Turtle, which is the book's highlight. Although it very slightly advances the overarching plot, the story mostly deals with the emotional fall-out of the Turtle's old flame getting re-married.  Twenty years have passed for the character since we last saw him and his life has not been going great. The Turtle's popularity as a hero has been eclipsed by those who came after him and he feels taken for granted. Meanwhile, as Tom Tudbury, he has become riven by insecurities, living alone and unable to use his great powers outside of his Turtle shell. "Winter's Chill" is ultimately a tragedy about how even super-heroes can have their lives torn apart, not by a villain, but by their own self-loathing.

The Turtle's insecurities continue in the story "Relative Difficulties" by Melinda M. Snodgrass which sees him team up with Dr. Tachyon and Mark Meadows from the previous book to fend off Tachyon's people, the Takisians, who have returned to take their errant prince home in the wake of the Swarm invasion. Although nominally about Tachyon's relationship with his people and family, this story is more about re-introducing Mark Meadows and showing off his array of super-powers.

In the previous book, Meadows may have briefly changed into a hero called the Radical under the influence of LSD. In Book Two, we learn that his attempts to become the Radical again have largely met with failure. Instead, Meadows has become Captain Trips, a drug-fueled riff on  Dial H For Hero (or Ben 10 for any millenials reading this). By taking different mixtures of drugs, Trips can turns into (or switch places with) five distinct heroes for an hour at a time, each with their own powers, memories, and personality.

The next story "With A Little Help from His Friends", by Victor Milan, is basically a retread of "Relative Difficulties". The Takisians return for round two and Tachyon and Trips (minus the Turtle this time) have to stop them.  It does, however, introduce my favorite Trips alter-ego: Starshine, a well-meaning oaf prone to lectures on the evils of capitalism and composing poetry at inappropriate times. (He's right about a lot of what he says but he tends to do it when he should be focusing on the crisis at hand).  Ultimately, because both "With a Little Help from His Friends" and "Relative Difficulties" are really a chance to showcase most of Trips' alter-egos, they work best as straight action stories. They are both fine in that respect although "Friends" seems a little redundant as it covers most of the same territory as "Relative Difficulties."

The heroes' final confrontation (for this book, anyway)  with the Astronomer comes in "By Lost Ways" by Pat Cadigan. This story introduces the new ace, Jane Lillian Dow a.k.a. Water Lily blessed with ability to control water. Making her way to New York with the hopes of becoming a celebrity ace,  she quickly finds herself kidnapped by the Masons.  Although "By Lost Ways" concludes with a big superhero battle, it is largely hampered by being from the perspective of Water Lilly. This is a problem as she is the book's only female lead and she spends most of that time as a hostage, relying on others to rescue her, not really showing any agency until the very end of the story. And having read the later book in the series, I can say the character will only get worse from here, not better.

The amusing "Mr. Koyama's Comet" by Walter John Williams is basically a short piece about an egotistical amateur astronomer (no pun intended) that largely serves to set up the final salvo of the Swarm invasion. That salvo comes  in "Half Past Dead" by John J. Miller, where the non-super powered vigilante Yeoman winds up having to team up with Dr. Tachyon, Fortunato, and Mai, an ace healer, to defeat the Swarm.

This story gets credit for having a better ending than just destroying the big alien monster and further points for having that ending set up in the pervious book. It looses points for mostly beings an excuse for putting the Yeoman character in the book. Despite the contrivances to justify Yeoman's presence, with all the powerful aces Tachyon knows, it really doesn't make sense to recruit the character who has no powers other than archery skills to save the world. There's a reason, after all, that Hawkeye is the least believable Avenger.

Aces High is the first time the series had an overarching plotline throughout one book and, while the stories are inconsistent, the book showed it could be done. All thing being equal, the book does a good job setting up plot threads and then continuing through multiple stories by different writers. The overarching invasion plotline is advanced in each story and the book does manage to bring it all together into what I found to be a satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, if the first book was about introducing the characters and their world, the second book is about showing the status quo of the Wild Cards universe. Of the early books in the series, this one is the most like a standard super-hero story: Heroes fight villains, hero wins, repeat as necessary. In the end, the major characters are all in place for the next book, ready for round two. Unfortunately for them, Book Three is coming and not everyone is going to get out unscathed...

Friday, May 26, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 2: Aces High Part 1

If Wild Cards Book I was about setting up the world and characters, then Wild Card Volume II - Aces High was about showing that the world's and characters could be used to tell a singular story line. Unlike the first book, a single narrative thread bind all the stories: an alien invasion of Earth.

The book begin in 1979 where we found out what everybody's favorite tantric magician, Fortunato, has been up to since the first book in a story called "Pennies from Hell", written by Lewis Shiner. The answer to that question turns out to be continuing his vendetta against the cult he antagonized in Book I which are revealed to be a branch of the Egyptian Masons. 

This story introduces a running theme of Fortunato's character arc: the fact that his actions tend to have unintended consequences to the people closest to him.  The realization of this clashes with the character's fundamentally selfish attitude towards life, driving much of his internal conflict going forward. That being said, the sexual nature of Fortunato's powers comes off as trying to hard to shock and ends up just being silly. Reading the scene at the end of "Pennies from Hell", where Fortunato (apparently) destroys the Masons, the details of which I will mercifully spare you, prompted a snicker when I first read the book as a teenager and time has not made it any less silly.

The book jumps ahead to 1985 to two interstitial stories, "Jube" (uncredited)  and "Unto the Sixth Generation" by Walter John Williams. Starting with this book, Wild Cards novels contained interstitial stories  divided into multiple chapters throughout the book and advancing the book's overarching plot. These stories contrast with individual stories which takes up a single chapter.

In this case, the two stories share an inciting incident: A dying alien arrives on Earth with an experimental teleportation device with a warning of an oncoming invasion by a race of world devouring aliens called the Swarm. "Jube" tells the story one of the alien's associates, Jube the Walrus, a newsboy who appears to be a deformed joker, but is in  fact an alien himself: an agent planted by a group of space trader know as the Network to spy on the Wild Cards. Jube spends most of the book trying to build a device to call the Network to summon help to fight off the Swarm.

"Unto the Sixth Generation" introduces a new hero, the android Modular Man, created by Dr. Maxim Travnicek, an ace whose ability make him a gifted inventor. Being a self-obsessed misanthrope, Travnicek has designs on fame and programs Modular Man to fight crime as part of a plan to get rich by selling androids to the military. Quickly becoming a celebrity, Modular Man is accepted into the ace community, and as a result gets a front-row seat for the Swarm invasion.

Both Jube and Modular Man were good choices for protagonists as they are both likable characters. In Jube's case, the idea of an alien passing as a disfigured human is a clever one. Furthermore, he is the rare Wild Cards character who simply has a good heart. He cares about other people and the character's ernest desire to save Earth is endearing even if his story ultimately comes to a rather cynical conclusion.

Modular Man is another character who is basically a good person. Unlike android comic-book heroes, like the Vision or the Red Tornado, who Modular Man owes a clear debt to, fitting in with humanity proves to be the easy part. Modular Man loves life and embraces it fully. Like many characters in the series, Modular Man is a womanizer who likes alcohol. Unlike the other characters, this doesn't come of as much as a character flaw but rather as a side effect of the character's sheer joy d'vivre.  Its hard to hate some one who enjoys life so much. The character's real conflict comes from the dawning realization that he is essentially enslaved by his creator, Dr. Travnicek.

Modular Man's story, "Unto the Sixth Generation" is the story that focuses more on super-hero action with several genuinely suspenseful fight scenes. It also has the honor of introducing the story's major human villain, The Astronomer, the leader of the Egyptian Masons who survived Fortunato's assault in the first story and has his own reasons for wanting the Swarm to invade. He's also an old man in a wheel chair so how terrifying could he possibly be?

-- Oh.  That terrifying. Despite his age,  the Astronomer is a particularly nasty villain. His ace ability grants him incredible psychic powers which he charges by killing people, which he does in several sequences that are not for the faint of heart.  He is unsettling because, while he is clearly a psychopath, he is also a master planner. His evil plan is genuinely clever, which give the story a villain that seems like a genuine threat, no easy feet for a book with so many powerful heroes.

In part two, we'll explore the individual stories and catch up with Wild Cards mainstays like  Dr. Tachyon and the Turtle.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Rue Morgue Reading - "Skin" was probably pretty shocking back in the day

The great thing about the Rue Morgues list of the top 100 horror novels is that it drew from several hundred years of material. In fact, The Monk,  the oldest book in the series was written in the eighteenth century. Ironically, while The Monk has aged pretty well over the centuries, Kathe Koja's Skin, published in 1992, has not.

This is not to say that it's a bad book. In fact, Skin has compelling characters , a fascinating plot, and deals with extreme body modification, a subject that is always ripe for horror. (If you don't believe me, just look at the extreme piercings and  ritual self-mutilations of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser series of films). It's just not really scary which is kind of bad news for a book that bills itself as "psychological horror."

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Skin, at it's heart, is a story about Tess Bajac, a struggling metalworker who wields together mechanical sculpture. Her artwork attracts the attention of Bibi, an aspiring dancer, who draws Tess into using her talents as part of a performing art group. However, it becomes clear over time that Bibi is mentally ill and has an obsession with self-mutilation that leads her to modify her own body in unhealthy ways  though piercings and surgeries. Add into this the Svengali-like Micheal who exert influences over both of the female leads, we have a volatile mix ready to explode.

--Only it never quite does. All throughout the book, we are left with the idea that a something is going to go horribly wrong. But when it does, once in the middle of the book and once again at the end,  it turns out to be nothing you wouldn't find in any conventional thriller novel. To put it in perspective, there are James Patterson novels that are more horrific than anything that happens in Skin.  

Then, if the action is not the source of horror, then it must come from the psychological states of the characters. Unfortunately, that's not scary either. Tess, the point-of-view character, certainly has issues but she is also a decent person who has relationships with toxic people.  As a heroine, she is ultimately too likable for her mental problems to elicit horror. Bibi is too dysfunctional to be sympathetic and Michael is deliberately supposed to be unlikable. As a result, the story comes off as a tragedy about relationships, and not necessarily a bad one, but again ultimately not a horror story.

Then, the only remaining source of horror could be the physical transformation that Bibi practices on herself as she is driven increasingly to modify her body. But again, while certainly not something a healthy person would do to themselves, it never gets to the point where it becomes scary.

I think that a lot of it has to do with the age of the book. Back when it was written, the idea of voluntary surgical body modification was unexplored in popular culture and the people who practiced it were largely an unseen subgroup. Unfortunately, the last few years have resulted in a surge of horror movies regarding surgical body modification with granddaddy of them all being the Human Centipede films, a film series with a premise so disturbing I can't even bring myself to watch them. Furthermore, real people with extreme body modifications began appearing on the public's radar thanks to reality television and online news providers need for click bait. (Google "Lizardman" if you don't believe me).  In today's world, the modifications described in Skin, wile still off-putting, just aren't as disturbing as they were when the book was written.

In the end, I'd say give this book a read if you're a fan of tragedy or relationship drama but if you  go in expecting horror, expect to be disappointed

Friday, March 31, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 3

So here we are the last entry for book 1.  As I said in the last post, the stories I'm going to cover here were not included in the original publication of the first book of Wild Cards. Instead, they were written for the book's republication by in 2010, twenty-three years after the novel's first publication. This is both a blessing and a curse: the stories are no longer bound by having to set up plot threads for the next novels but at the same time they have to take care not to contradict the events of the other twenty-two books.

This problem shows itself most fully in the first new story "Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace" by Michael Casutt.  The titular "secret ace" is one Karl von Kampen, a television producer who secretly possesses the power of "fokus," his pet-name for his  superhuman eye-site.  Karl produces the children's sci-fi  TV show, Captain Cathode, which is up for a lucrative sponsorship deal that is being jeopardized by the lead actor's tendency to disappear for long periods of time. When Karl tries to investigate  of the situation, he finds himself the target of the Medusa Killer, a murderer who literally turns his victims to stone.

To me this story is the epitome of a wasted opportunity. The sole story in the book to completely break free from the traditional origin story paradigm, it is, unfortunately, also pretty much pointless. The characters introduced in this story don't show up again in later books and because of the story's retroactive nature, none of the plot threads can be taken up again until past Book Twenty-Three. Writing new stories for Wild Cards could have been an opportunity to develop some of the characters introduced in the first book. Instead, "Captain Cathode" just feels like a place holder, there to pad out the page count.

Things improve somewhat in the next story, "Powers" by David D. Levine, which may not be essential but does at least serve a purpose. This is the Wild Cards universe retelling of the real-life story of Francis Garry Powers, an American pilot who was shot down and captured while piloting a spy plane over the Soviet Union. In the real world, Powers was released as part of an exchange of hostages by both sides. In this version of the story, he is rescued by the story's protagonist, Frank Majewski, a middle-aged ace.

"Powers" uses the real-life incident as a backdrop for what is essentially another origin story. (Majewski receives an appropriately super-hero-y sounding name at end of the story). However, it has a lot of fun riffing on the similarities between the super-heroes and the spy genre, namely code names and secret identities. Also, it shows what the aces were doing during the McCarthy era, a period of time that is constantly referenced but not really shown during the series proper. It also answers a minor mystery about the fate of a side character, 24 years after it was introduced in the first edition of this book, and then never mentioned in subsequent books. (See what I mean when I say that it could take a while for this series to wrap up plot threads.)

Another problem presented by these stories is there placement in the book as a whole.The book maintains it's chronological conceit which means that the new stories are inserted into the appropriate place between the older stories. The problem with this is that three of the  older stories "Witness', "Degradation Rites" and "Shell Games", contained a plot arc that continued from one story to the next. In older editions, these stories followed one another, allowing for a uninterrupted narrative thread.  However, since the new stories take place years before "Shell Games", they are inserted after "Degradation Rites". The result is that the book main narrative arc comes to a complete stop to tell two essentially unrelated stories and, as a result, the narrative flow is broken, to the book's detriment.

The last story, "Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" by Carrie Vaughn, is the best of the new stories. Set in the 80s, the story tells the backstory of Jennifer Malloy,  aka Wraith, a heroic thief who is prominent in the later books in the series. Here, she is still just a reserved young woman who is hiding her ace ability to turn intangible at will.  Unfortunately, an evening clubbing with a friend goes south when she inadvertently encounters Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, and gets embroiled in a conflict over some stolen money. While doing this, she learns to loosen up and enjoy stealing other people's things. (There are probably worse lessons to learn but none immediately spring to mind.)

"Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" is the best of the new stories, mainly because it ties in more to the series as a whole.  In the original version of the series, Wraith was not introduced until the third book, by which time her career as a thief was already well underway. "Ghost Girl" gives us a sense of how she got to that point as well as working as a stand alone heist story.

Because the Wild Cards series has so many characters, theres simply isn't enough room to flesh all the character's backstories as much as one might like. Thus, the opportunity to write new stories for a new edition of the first book was an opportunity to go back and fill in some of the gaps. (I personally would have liked to get some background on Perigrine, who is arguably the most public female heroine in the early books, or seen some of Hiram Worchester's days at the crime-fighting Fatman.) Since only "Ghost Girl" takes full advantage of this opportunity, the other stories seem less consequential to the series as a whole. Thus, I would argue that the 2010 edition is for hard-core completists only.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rue Morgue Reading- The Straw Men

Today, my blog will undertake a new project. Yes, yet another project that will come out in nowhere near a timely fashion.  As my friends and family know I am an avid reader of Rue Morgue magazine which focuses on horror in all aspects of popular culture. It is, in short, the thinking man's Fangoria.  A few years ago I read their article on the 100 best horror novels and decided to read them all. Every--- single--- one.

And I'm going to be sharing my opinion on every single one of them you my dear readers. I'm going to read them in no particular order but I will read them and discuss whether or not I think they are any good. Aren't you lucky?

First up: The Straw Men by Michael Marshall.

Let's get the first thing out of the way. This book is the first in a trilogy that deals with the efforts of Ward Hopkins, ex-CIA agent, in opposing the enigmatic criminal/terrorist organization that call themselves the "Straw Men." I actually the second book in the series some years ago and was left unimpressed (SPOILERS: If the end of your gritty thriller novel about a serial killer involves telepathic Neanderthals, reconsider your ending.)

By all logic, I should hate the "Straw Men" as well. And I will admit that there are some parts of the story that seem to tread into ridiculousness. (The "Straw Men" are implied to be behind pretty much almost everything bad that has happened for the last sixty years from the Altamont concert shootings to the war in the Middle East).

And yet it works. The story is a murder mystery dual investigation plot where two seemingly separate investigations turn out to be connected. One plot follows Ward Hopkins as he discovers evidence that the car accident that killed his parents may have been deliberately arranged. His search leads him to a gated community called the Halls, which is run and inhabited by members of the Straw Men. Hopkins is left trying to find out his parents' connection to the organization, a search which leads to disturbing revelations about his own past.

The second thread follows Jim Zandt, a former police officer who left the force after his daughter was abducted by a serial killer called the "Upright Man."When the "Upright Man" returns, abducting a fourteen year old girl named Sarah Becker, Zandt is called in by his ex-lover, FBI agent Nina Baynam to assist in the investigation.

This sounds like pretty formulaic crime thriller fair but make no mistake-- "The Straw Men" is a horror novel. The Straw Men's philosophy feeds into one of the most basic fears- that human beings are hopelessly corrupt on a fundamental level and that it is not evil, but rather virtue, that is an aberration. The book contains some scene that can only be described as nihilistic (the revelation of what animals the Straw Men keep in their stables is incredibly bleak and depressing).

Plus, Ward Hopkins is good lead. Just enough of a shady past with government that it's plausible that he could survive the unlikely scenarios he finds himself in but with little enough combat experience, that it's clear that he is completely in over his head. It makes the stakes so much higher and thus, his victories so much more rewarding.

The ending of the book as befits a trilogy is open-ended, leaving room for the next book. But trust me when I say that reading the sequel is a massive waste of time, especially because of Marshall's decisions to introduce science-fiction elements to the plot. The first book has enough a resolution that I was satisfied but that's a subjective judgment and if you're the type who absolutely need to know what happens to the characters in a book series, you might want to give it a miss.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Wild at Heart- A Wild Card's Retrospective- Book 1: Wild Cards Part 2

The first of the stories is "The Long Dark Night of Fortunato" by Lewis Shiner. This story introduces another character who will be a major player, a pimp known only as Fortunato. When a serial killer begins targeting the girls he work with, Fortunato is at a loss until the Wild Card virus grants him pseudo-mystical powers. (He can best be  be described --- and there is absolutely no good way to say this -- as a sex powered wizard.) Forutnato soon discovers that the killer has ties to an ancient cult with sinister designs.

This story is probably the most violent and disturbing of the many stories in the book, primarily for one of the most uncomfortable interrogation scenes ever set to paper. However, it is actually a fascinating character study both for what it reveals about the larger universe and what it reveals about the main characters. First, the story explores is the first to really explore the idea that the Wild Cards virus acts on the subconscious thoughts of it's hosts. Thus, the abilities and deformities it grants its hosts are based on their subconscious beliefs and fears. Fortunato is, uh, practicing  a Tantric ritual when his powers emerge and, as a result, his vast powers only work when he preforms the appropriate spell.

The idea of the Wild Card begin able to grant people abilities baed on their beliefs allowed the series to bring in characters who would normally be outside its scope in a world where super-powers come from a single source. Fortunato is an uncouth analogue for mystical heroes like Dr. Strange and Dr. Fate. In later stories, the virus  would allow for the creation of an android hero similar to Marvel's Vision and mythological figures who serve as Thor analogues.

Fourtunato himself is a rather complex character. Technically a "hero", simply because he sets himself in opposition to an unquestionably evil organization, he is still a criminal himself who exploits women for a living. His greatest fear is that, to quote Spider-Man, "with great power comes great responsibility." The character's constant struggle with the idea that, as much as he may deny it, he has an obligation to uses his powers to help others or, at the very least, for things other than criminal activities drives much of his actions throughout the series.

The next story is "Transfigurations"by Victor Milan is set in the late 60 and early 70s and follows Marc Meadows, a MIT student who has become enamored with the hippy movement and is looking to enter the drug scene. The plot is pretty impossible to discuss without spoilers so SPOILER WARNING. Meadows spends most of the story awkwardly courting his old grade school crush and dithering back and forth on whether or not to take LSD for the first time. He finally takes his first dose as a fight between two aces breaks out, a fight which is then broken up by the appearance of a third ace called the Radical, who subsequently disappears. Mark wakes up the next day with vague memories of participating in the fight and begins experimenting with drugs in an attempt to determine if he was, in fact the Radical.

This story feels the most frustratingly incomplete.  Give what we learn about Meadows in the next book, his quest to become the Radical is merely the beginning of his transformation into an ace. Thus, "Transfigurations" reads more the first half of an origin story and since Meadow's transformation is already complete in the second book, the reader doesn't get to see the second half. Furthermore, the story sets up a subplot about the conservative ace Hardhat and his quest for his daughter which is then completely dropped as the character never appears again. Despite this, it's impossible to hate this story as Meadows himself is the nicest character in the first part of the series and quickly endears himself to the reader.

The next interlude gives us a status update of the world in 1971. Written as a Tom Wolfe pastiche, it introduces the celebrity culture that has sprung up around the aces in the wake of the Turtle's emergence as a crimefighter. This interlude primarily serves to introduce the cult of celebrity that has grown around aces, and flesh out a location that will important in later books: celebrity restaurant Aces High, run by Hiram Worcester, formerly the Fatman, a retired hero turned restaurant owner.

The next story is "Down Deep" by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper which introduces a group of sewer dwelling heroes. The main protagonists are Mafia princess and aspiring social worker Rosa-Maria Gambione, her client Bagabond, a homeless woman who can talk to animals, and "Sewer Jack" Robicheaux, a were-alligator sewer maintenance worker. When Rosa's fiancee, a member of the local mob, is murdered by the mysterious Subway Vigilante, it precipitates a gang war that draws all three protagonists to the sewers to stop the Mafia from carrying out a massacre.

This story, though better than "The Sleeper",  introduced what are honestly my least favorite of the Wild Cards characters from the first book, Bagabond and Sewer Jack. They're not terrible characters by any means but they always seemed disconnected from the other characters and more like they should be part of a separate series. There are lip service mentions to characters from the previous stories but they really do not figure into the action. (Admittedly, a major character in this story had previously made a cameo earlier in the book but that was more to set up their appearance in this story then anything else.)

According to Martin, this story was written before the decision was made to set the first Wild Card outbreak in the 1940s and had to be re-edited later to fit the setting. This definitely shows in the story. A scene where Bagabond and Sewer Jack come to realize that they are both Aces makes sense in a context where the virus is a relatively recent phenomenon but not so much in a setting  where Aces have been around for over twenty years. The story is not bad. I just wish it felt more like it was part of the larger series.

"Down Deep" is followed up by a story that focuses more on the true victims of the Wild Card virus: the disfigured jokers. Another interlude show establishes two revival joker advocacy groups operating out of Jokertown, a joker ghetto in New York City. One is the The Joker Anti-Defamation League, which advocates for non-violent resistance led by an elephant Joker who goes by the name of Xavier Desmond. (No points for guessing who inspired this character). Opposing him is the militant Joker's for a Just Society, led by Tom Miller aka Gimli, whose Wild Card virus has turned him into a super-strong dwarf.

This situation is then explored more thoroughly in the disturbing story "Strings" by Stephen Leigh which introduces the Wild Card's universe first major super-villain and is impossible to discuss without SPOILERS so consider yourself warned. The story starts, in the 1940s, with a brutal murder instigated by the emotion controlling ace known as Puppetman, who we soon learn is only 11 years old. The story then jumps to 1976 where the Jokers for a Just Society are threatening to riot if their demands aren't heard. The story follows Succubus, a joker prostitute, who is spying on one of her clients, pro-joker right Senator Gregg Hartman, on behalf of Gimli. There are several hints throughout the story that Puppetman is actually Gimli, but we eventually learn that Puppetman is Senator Hartman, secretly using his powers to provoke the jokers to riot as part of a bid for the Presidency. Eventually, Puppetman's powers lead to his own undoing but he escapes detection to plot again another day.

This story sets the tone for what villains are like in the Wild Cards universe. Since the heroes are themselves incredibly flawed, the villains, by contrast, are all massive psychopaths so the audience knows who to root for. This is true of this story which also includes fun little bits of world building: the Jokertown Riots of 76 will be a plot point throughout the series and the story include an action-packed team-up between several of the ace heroes which introduces several new characters. The story also adds an element of suspense as Gregg Hartman is almost universally loved by both jokers and aces, all of whom are unaware of his inner depravity.

Unfortunately, this story highlights what can be the most maddening aspect in the Wild Cards universe. Because of the multiple writers working on each story and the needs of each book, plot threads and characters introduced in one book can be ignored for multiple books before being followed up on, if they ever are. Despite being Wild Card's first major villain, Puppetman does not appear outside of cameos for the next two books which is a shame because he turns out to be a fascinating character. Another character introduced in "Strings" the enigmatic Black Shadow, won't show up again for several more books despite the story dropping hints that he is more than he appears. The downside of setting up an interesting world with lots of characters is that you have to wait awhile before some of them get a turn in the spotlight.

After another brief interlude consisting simply fictionalized media quotes from various characters in the book, we come to the 1980s with "Comes a Hunter" by John J. Miller, the  final story in the book excluding the epilogue. This story depicts Daniel Brennan, an army deserter, who receives a letter from an old friend telling him that Kien Phuc, the South Vietnamese general behind the deaths of Brennan's old army unit and his wife, is in New York City. Brennan arrives in the city to find his friend murdered and his friend's daughter, Mai Minh, kidnapped. Adopting the costumed identity of Yeoman, Brennan must rescue the girl from Kien's ace lieutenant Scar.

I have mixed feelings about this story and they all stem from Yeoman himself. He's an interesting character, a non-powered vigilante in a world of super-heroes but-- and this is important-- his main weapon is a bow and arrow.  He's one of the more competent heroes in the series but -- he uses a bow and arrow. His stories, especially in this book, introduce elements that become important in the larger series, especially the joker information broker Chrysalis, but --- he uses a bow and arrow. Bow and arrow characters, like Green Arrow and Hawkeye, always strained suspension of disbelief when they appear in comics so when one appears in a book series with pretensions to towards realism like Wild Cards, the same suspension is totally shattered.

The book as a whole is probably my favorite of the first three Wild Card novels but it's also the hardest to judge as a single work. The book is more concerned with world-building than with telling a singular story but it does a good job with what it sets out to do. Each story in the book introduces new plot threads and characters that suggest potential stories of their own. Believe me, this retrospective doesn't even begin to cover all of the minor characters introduced in this book, some of whom will become major characters in subsequent volumes.  Overall, the book does it's job which is to suck you into the world of Wild Cards.

That's it, then. The book's over right. Well no. See, when Tor Books, took over the publishing of the series in the late 2000s, they reissued the first book with three all new stories. And I'll go over the stories in part three.