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Book description

Well, this was a pleasant surprise. After reading a less-than-impressive short story of Martins in a zombie-themed collection, I have never really been interested in the stuff he would rather do than work on the behemoth flagship series that I am now convinced he secretly hates. But I had a signed copy of this fall into my lap a few years ago, and happened across it again recently, so I figured I’d give it a try. Despite my skepticism, I was hooked within a few pages, and stayed engaged the whole way through.The Wild Cards series presupposes an alternate universe where an alien virus is unleashed over New York that kills 90% of those who contract it. As for the rest, most are “blessed” with mutations and deformities of various type and severity (these unfortunates are colloquially referred to as jokers), while a select few are endowed with superpowers (otherwise known as deuces or aces, depending on the power). As with previous entries, this book is a series of novellas and short stories that are sliced into alternating chapters which build upon one another and are edited into a single narrative. This particular narrative focuses on “Fort Freak,” the police precinct of Jokertown. After what seems to be a questioning gone wrong, a confidential informant is dead and a Jokertown cop is seriously wounded. The suspect, a snake-bodied teenager with a venomous tongue, is a witness to what really happened, and he relies on a beleaguered public defender and a priest with a dark past to protect him from crooked cops and a frightening vigilante. Meanwhile, a ram-headed detective on his last stretch before retirement takes one last crack at a maddening old case, and dredges up secrets that someone is desperate to keep buried.The book is about as weird as you would expect it to be from the setting’s description, especially if you’ve never read any of the Wild Cards books before. But underneath the carnival of oddities and grit-stained superheroes is a straightforward noir tale, and a pretty good one, at that. The tone varies, as one would expect from a short story collection, but as jarring as that change could occasionally get, I didn’t find the book nearly as uneven as I expected. The main story thread by Cherie Priest is expertly written, and the sideplots and character studies by the other contributors weave seamlessly in and out of it, coming together in an ending that could have been masterminded by a single author. Even the most egregious and unnecessary of these digressions— a love interest with a heavy focus on ménage à trois— is written fairly well, and fits within the general world and mood of the book.After the sprawling, unedited mess that was the most recent two Song of Ice and Fire books, this tightly plotted and expertly written collection is like a breath of fresh air. Of course, my skepticism still holds sway; despite Martin’s name in enormous letters on the cover, he didn’t actually write anything in this collection, and his editing credit is accompanied by a humble little “assisted by Melinda Snodgrass” (one of the contributing authors, and also the person tapped to develop the film treatment of the Wild Cards universe), so Im forced to wonder how much he really had to do with this particular book. Still, the setting is based on a superhero mythos he helped create through a tabletop game that he used to run, so it’s another example of why he remains one of my favorite authors: whatever other flaws he has as an author, he can tell a hell of a story.This book is a dark horse favorite. I am definitely going to seek out the rest of the Wild Cards collection and start from the beginning.

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