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.
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...