Wild Cards Volume 14 - MARKED CARDS
Following right on from the concluding pages of the last volume, Marked Cards continues in the usual format, with Stephen Leigh continuing to provide the interlinking stories with The Colour of His Skin, as Part 1 has Hannah handing over all of her findings from the previous tale, as well as the narrative duties, to Gregg Hartmann in the hope he can alert the public to the threat of the Card Sharks.
Jerry Strauss dives deep into shark infested waters in Two of a Kind (by Walton Simons), and ends up giving George C. Battle some of his own medicine. Hartmann exposes the evidence and his newly discovered gift on TV in The Colour of His Skin Part 2 while, half a world away, Mark Meadows gains a guru, loses two friends and learns appearances aren't everything in My Sweet Lord (by Victor Milan).
Gregg preaches patience to his troops in The Colour of His Skin Part 3; while in Guatemala, Bagabond is forced to return to the world of humans in Paths of Silence and of Night (by Leanne C. Harper), when she is called upon to help a nat and a joker/ace evade the forces of evil; and Gregg continues to do the right things for the wrong reasons in The Colour of His Skin Part 4.
Feeding Frenzy Part l (by Walter Jon Williams) finds a betrayed Black Shadow joining forces with his fellow inmates in order to seek some poetic justice against an old tormentor. The Colour of His Skin Part 5 sees Hartmann adapting to his new circumstances, while Shad and The Sleeper get proactive as they team up for a little shark-hunting in Feeding Frenzy Part ll, and bring the jumper saga to a definite conclusion as an added bonus.
Gregg gets blamed for a mistake Croyd made in The Colour of His Skin Part 6, while A Breath of Life (by Sage Walker) introduces the much-troubled Zoe Harris, who seeks out a retired ace for some much-needed training, and ends up searching for the promised land.
As Gregg gets caught up in himself and discovers, in The Colour of His Skin Part 7, that nobody knows you when you're down and out, A Dose of Reality (by Laura J. Mixon & Melinda M. Snodgrass) introduces the new Chief of Medicine at the Jokertown clinic, who faces a conflict of interests when she not only meets her soul mate, but finds a long lost relative.
Ultimately, in The Colour of His Skin Part 8, as the Card Sharks prepare to unleash their Final Solution, Gregg faces the ultimate irony and realises where his true talents lay.
What could have been said about the middle chapter of the Jumper saga also applies to this one: better than the previous volume, not as good as the next. While this is still a compelling entry in the series, the nature of the Wild Cards' formula stipulates that it's the concluding part of a triad where the writers pull out all the stops and push the tension factor up to eleven. Oddly enough, the kinship with Jokertown Shuffle is further strengthened by the fact that both instalments contain a running narrative by Stephen Leigh, a Mr Nobody adventure, a Cap'n Trips tale, and another two-part Black Shadow thriller. Spooky.
One advantage Marked Cards has over the last volume is the fact that the admittedly necessary flashback structure has been dispensed with in place of the familiar narrative format, thereby placing the reader back into the heart of the action. And since all the exposition is now out of the way, the writers are free to focus their efforts on how their heroes deal with the new situation placed before them.
First up is Mr Nobody doing what he does best in Two of a Kind. That is, throwing caution completely to the wind and diving straight into trouble. As well as neglecting to tell anyone what he's doing until he's already done it. That's our Jerry. Nevertheless, it's thanks to him that the tables start to turn for the Card Sharks as one of their members, the thoroughly nasty George C. Battle, gets to see how the other half lives when his own ineptitude proves to be his undoing.
On the face of it, My Sweet Lord would seem to have little to do with the current storyline other than to keep us up to date with Mark Meadows' situation in Vietnam. It does, however, pave the way for the central role he will play in the climactic chapter, as well as giving Croyd a motive to return to the States and inflict some pain on the Card Sharks later in the book.
We also get a gripping jungle chase story in Leanne C. Harper's Paths of Silence and of Night, when Peregrine's other half, Josh McCoy and Umán, his ace/joker guide seek help from none other than Bagabond, in order to evade a military hunting party and deliver crucial evidence to the States. Thankfully, the Bagabond we encounter in this yarn is far removed from the feral, machine-like creature of earlier days; her character becoming a little more rounded thanks to her affiliation with the Mayan villagers, and an encounter with two essentially decent human beings doing their utmost to stay one step ahead of the devil.
Nice also to see Gregg Hartmann getting his just desserts in The Colour of His Skin. The core narrative chronicling the troubles and strife of Wild Cards' best-known schizophrenic has a pleasing sense of symmetry to it, with Stephen Leigh stripping away everything that he was and having him hit rock-bottom in order to see what's left. As with Mark Meadows, a foretaster of the major role he will play in the concluding chapter.
However, as was the case with Jokertown Shuffle, the clear favourite in this volume has to be Walter Jon Williams' two-part Black Shadow episode, Feeding Frenzy. One of those tales you wish was a mite longer, not only is it very fast-moving, but in once again teaming Shad up with Croyd, we get two of the more ruthless aces in a 'vendetta kind of mood' as they adopt the Sharks' own tactics to take the war to the enemy. After one-and-a-half books of the villains more or less having everything go their way, there's a certain cathartic pleasure to be had in witnessing two well-organised hard-men tearing everything up and wasting a whole cadre of bad guys. Most stories would have this as a finale - in the world of the Wild Cards, we're only halfway through the plot.
Next up - Armageddon.
Brandon van Renssaeler: 'I believe world-spanning conspiracies are best left to comic books and the tabloids.'.
J. Robert Belew: 'When you turn a nation into a collection of competing ethnicities, as the Welfare State has so ably accomplished, you generate losers. And we Wild Cards have duly lost.'
George Battle: 'Jesus, Phil, it's bad enough being a joker. Now you want me to be a liberal?'
Croyd: 'You learned algebra?'
Black Shadow: 'I almost got my doctorate in physics.'
Croyd: 'No shit! I didn't know that, homeboy. Why didn't you finish?'
Black Shadow: 'I sorta got into the vigilante business.'
Croyd: 'Yeah. The bastards. They always screw you out of everything.'