Wild Cards Volume 12 - TURN OF THE CARDS
Rather than begin a new triad, this last entry in the original cycle of books is written solely by Victor Milán, and presents us with another stand-alone novel that recounts the earthly troubles of Mark Meadows now that he's returned from his otherworldly adventures in volume ten.
The main characters in this volume are:
Mark Meadows, AKA Cap'n Trips
Croyd Crenson, AKA The Sleeper
J. Robert Belew, AKA The Mechanic
with guest appearances from:
Helen Carlysle, AKA Mistral
Billy Ray, AKA Carnifex
Bobby Joe Puckett, AKA Crypt Kicker
Trying hard to adapt to the life of an exile in Amsterdam, Mark is brought back down to earth with the arrival in town of Mistral, an ace with a chip on her shoulder, and two violent DEA agents on a mission to bring in America's Most Wanted Drug Pusher, as well as a mysterious fellow with the unlikley moniker of Randall Bullock. With his friends' help, Mark takes to the water and makes a hasty retreat via Greece, where Mistral experiences a real tourist trap thanks to Jumpin' Jack Flash Esq.
With trouble always two steps behind, Mark tries to make use of his doctorate in india, engages in a little smuggling in the Middle East, before ending up in the Far East with Vietnam offering sanctuary to anyone possessing the Wild Card. Mistral is taken out of the picture in Thailand, Mutt and Jeff get on the Midnight Express in Turkey, Mark is persuaded to enlist in the new Joker Brigade and reunites with an old friend, while Moonchild shares a bunk with a new one.
However, as bodies begin piling up and the country's past starts to repeat itself, Mark realises that army life doesn't agree with him and goes over the hill to start his own revolution, gains a security chief with the arrival of J. Robert Belew, and finds a natural leader in Moonchild. With Billy Ray and Crypt Kicker being called in to halt the insurgents, Mark is betrayed and finds that only by turning to the dark side will he ever get out of this alive.
So Mark Meadows, peacenik, hippie, flower child, finally gets his own solo book - and, Milán's denials notwithstanding, it turns out to be a war story. Can you say 'ironic'? Of course you can. But since the follow-up to the rip-roaring Dealer's Choice was always going to have its work cut out for it, centring the story around old standby Mark Meadows was probably a wise decision in hindsight.
The problem with Meadows' character though, is that because he's so unbelievably naive and innocent, it's imperitive that he have a more streetwise foil to play against. In previous stories, characters such as Durg, K.C. Strange, and Jay Ackroyd have managed to keep his feet on the ground. Here, thanks to some inspired casting, Croyd Crenson fills that role for a large part of the story. And when he's asleep, along comes Mister Slick himself, J. Robert Belew - the ultimate dude who's been there, done that, is comfortable in any given situation, and can produce an appropriate quote as easily as most people breathe. Mark can be quite foolish and annoying at times, so Belew's and Croyd's sardonic ripostes to his more simple-minded comments make for enjoyable reading.
It's probably wise not to take Billy Ray's extended cameo towards the end of the story too seriously, however. Admittedly, his creator John J. Miller isn't holding the reins this time, but the return of the one-dimensional brawler of the earlier books is disappointing and a definite backward step after the pleasing developments in his character arc last volume. Basically, he's still following Battle's every order like a good boy, but doesn't care as long as he gets the opportunity to kick some ass. Ho-hum.
The DEA comes off poorly in this tale, and is represented by two demented agents who seem to have fallen off the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down. They are, however, not the stupidest guys in this alternate world. There is one character even dumber than this - and he's saved for the last story in the next trilogy.
The story itself is pretty enjoyable but ultimately works better as a character piece rather than as a war story/thriller. Mark's character is strengthened in preparation for his role in the upcoming triad, Croyd is used well and gets most of the laughs in a co-starring role, and Belew - despite being a little too perfect for his own good - makes a fine addition to the mythos. It also serves nicely as a bridge between triads, both as an epilogue to the Jumper saga (jokers searching for a homeland post-Rox) and prologue to the upcoming Card Sharks trilogy (Conspiracy, ahoy!).
However, it's not without its faults. A large question mark hangs over why Vietnam would encourage the world's jokers to migrate to its shores in the first place. And the resulting scenario whereby the past starts to repeat itself seems a little too contrived, with situations familiar to anyone who's seen a Vietnam war movie.
Another major plot hole - or continuity lapse - occurs with the appearance of Mistral in her old body after being jumped in Dealer's Choice. While recognising that several jumpers still survive from the last volume, it is never really explained how or, more importantly, why she gets her ace body back, since later revelations would indicate that those in charge of the jumpers would like nothing more than to do away with the ace altogether.
A proof-reading error occurs within the back cover blurb where it is claimed that Mark has "three personalities buried in his psyche". As any Wild Card fan will know, there are at least four. In fact, towards the end of the book, an intriguing mention is made of a 'legion' of metahuman personalities yet undiscovered by Mark.
This reality's version of Oliver Stone makes a movie called 'Destiny' instead of 'The Doors', with Tom Douglas being portrayed by Kurt Russell rather than Val Kilmer, Hardhat played by a very old Charles Bronson, and Jeff Fahey as The Radical. Also, Mark's smuggling buddy, Freewheelin' Frank(lin) seems to be taking time off from his usual day job as one of Gilbert Shelton's 'Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers'.
The full credits behind the names of Mark's friends are:
'Moonchild' by King Crimson (from the album, 'In the Court of the Crimson King', 1969).
'Good MorningStarshine' and 'Aquarius' (from the musical 'Hair', 1967).
'Jumpin' Jack Flash' by The Rolling Stones (single, 1968).
'Mystic Traveler' by Dave Mason, ex-member of Traffic (from the album, 'Let it Flow', 1977).
'Monster' by Steppenwolf (Album, 1969).
The Radical is the only one of Mark's friends whose name does not originate from a song.
Croyd: 'My gustatory habits are a big reason I have this lovely bunker all to my lovely lonesome. Great word, gustatory. Picked it up ten, eleven years ago, and damned if I don't think this is the first time I ever found a way to slip it into a sentence.'
'He peered inside. The bar was poorly lit - but then, the next well-lit bar you go into will be the first, now, won't it?'
Mark: 'You really dig life as a gecko, man?'
Croyd: 'Skink, dammit. I'm a skink.'
Mark: 'I thought skinks were skinny, squinty lizards with heads smaller than their necks.'
Croyd: 'See the words you're using? Skinny. Squinty. 'Sk' words. They sound like 'skink'. That's why you associate them with skinks.'
'Sleep Is For The Weak' - motto on Sleeper tribute T-shirt.