Wild Cards Volume 18 - INSIDE STRAIGHT
And so, with a new publisher (Tor) comes a new generation of Wild Cards. The first volume of a new triad switches between the nation's search for a new 'American Hero' in the reality TV stakes and the looming threat of genocide in Egypt, home of the Living Gods. The old format of individual stories connected by an interstitial narrative is retained with linking stories handled by Daniel Abraham, who starts things off by introducing Jonathan Hive - a man trying to understand his own past and asking Who The Fuck Was Jetboy?
Dark of the Moon (by Melinda M. Snodgrass) has woman of the night, Lilith, far from home and using a little misdirection in order to deal with an old enemy. Back in the States, Jonathan Hive Sells Out! by auditioning for 'American Hero', while PR copy From the Desk of Rebecca Lieberman (by George RR Martin) provides us with a lowdown on the rest of the contestants without skimping on the exclamation marks.
In Chosen Ones l (by Carrie Vaughn), Ana Cortez finds she isn't much help in a crisis until a midnight chat with Curveball helps her plumb new depths. Hive acquaints himself with the discard pile in First Among Loser, while Ana digs deep for her team's next challenge in Chosen Ones ll.
With time on his hands, Hive finds multi-tasking is Better Than Television, and in Looking for Jetboy (by Michael Cassutt), Stuntman makes a name for himself by sullying a competitor's. Metagames (by Caroline Spector) introduces Bubbles, a girl unhappy in her own skin until a betrayal opens new doors, and in All The Best Stories Start "This One Time We Were Really Drunk, and...", Hive and new-best-friend Lohengrin do some breaking and entering, and John Fortune discovers the beast within.
Noel Matthews flirts with the help to gain information in Star Power (by Melinda Snodgrass), while John Fortune wrestles with himself before coming to an important decision in Wakes the Lion (by John Jos. Miller). Hive follows his heart in A Bad Day in Cairo, and Lohengrin comes face to face with the Sword of Allah in Crusader (by George RR Martin).
Hive lists the fallen in Real People, Really Dying, while back in the States, Rustbelt discovers there's more to life than TV in The Tin Man's Lament (by Ian Tregillis). Help arrives from an unexpected quarter for a major skirmish in Hey Guys. My Dad's Got a Warehouse! Let's Put On a War! while in Incidental Music for Heroes (by Stephen Leigh), Drummer Boy performs for a whole new audience.
Blood on the Sun (by Melinda Snodgrass) sees Noel Matthews discovering politics and friendships don't mix; the end is in sight for Stuntman in Looking for Jetboy: Epilog (by Michael Cassutt); and a new order is introduced in Give the Wookie a Medal.
Almost like old times again, isn't it? We had Deuces Down and Death Draws Five to tide us over during the thirteen year wait for a series rebirth - something nobody was sure was ever going to happen. But the writers of 'Inside Straight' dive right back into the world of metahumans as if they had never been away and prove the point that there's always one more story to tell.
And what better way to bring the series bang up to date than to examine how the celebrity culture that afflicts our society affects the parallel world of the Wild Cards? 'American Hero' may come across as an all-too-recognisable reality show that revels in its own banality and utter pointlessness but, this being the Wild Cards, it merely serves as a springboard for the slightly weightier themes of genocide, racial intolerance and the true nature of heroism. As well as introducing characters who will play a larger role in the second half of the book and, one assumes, the next two volumes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Daniel Abraham's engrossing linking tales that recount the spiritual journey of wannabe journalist and reluctant hero, Jonathan Hive. His only previous contribution an enjoyable, if low-key, character piece in Deuces Down, Daniel Abraham shows here that he was born for the Wild Cards with the introduction of this generation's Jay Ackroyd. Cynical, sanctimonious and annoying as hell - though not for the reader - with a knack for finding the perfect wisecrack for any given occasion, Hive proves a great foil for almost every other character in the book as he attempts, and continually fails, to stay as objective as possible; whether reporting on his brief tenure on the show or the escalating violence in the middle east.
In stark contrast, Michael Cassutt gives us the pathetic tale of Stuntman in Looking for Jetboy, a callow and determined young man with glory in his eyes and the misguided belief that winning a talent show will transform him into the hero he always wanted to be. And after the electric debut of Midnight Angel in the previous volume (and where is she, by the way?), it would have been remiss of the writers not to usher in a few more of her female contemporaries. Thankfully, new recruits, Carrie Vaughn and Caroline Spector prove themselves up to the task with Chosen Ones and Metagames and bring Curveball, Earth Witch and Bubbles to the male-dominant table.
It helps the series' relaunch no end that George RR Martin and Melinda Snodgrass are back on writing duties, as well. With Crusader, Martin's larger-than-life German Ace, Lohengrin, is so unapologetically heroic, righteous and self-effacing - a rarity in itself for this series - that the reader instantly warms to him. And the verbal sparring between him and Hive can't help but remind the long term reader of similar conversations of old between Tachyon and Popinjay. While Melinda Snodgrass's enigmatic British Secret Service Ace, Noel Matthews (AKA Double Helix) is another complex character with enough mystery surrounding him that further tales would be most welcome.
Pretty good so far, right? So what's the downside? Well, it seems the writers have taken the 'new generation' tagline a little too literally as, aside from a few brief cameos here and there, old favourites get barely a mention in this new arc. Peregrine's still as shallow as ever, Digger Downs as obnoxious, but too many of the old guard are missing in action. Okay, many of them would be getting on in years but The Sleeper must surely still be up and about, downing uppers and causing mayhem; yet we are given no clues as to his current status. Same goes for Billy Ray, Jerry Strauss, Mod Man and numerous other Aces who should still be going strong. This volume gives the series a great reboot, but putting too many of the established stars out to pasture would be a mistake. Let's hope future volumes will make amends and bring back some of those who helped make the series what it is.
Lohengrin shares superficial similarities to Kirby and Lee's Thor, although his abilty to call forth an indestructable sword instead of a hammer from the air seems very similar to Midnight Angel's.
Hive gives The Sleeper a brief tip of the hat when he mentions him as the star of Robert Crumb's underground comix in the sixties.
Lohengrin: 'We are men. We are blessed among men. Our actions should be guided by what is right and noble.
Hive: 'We're drunks in Vegas. Our actions should be guided by vice and alcohol.'
Lohengrin: 'All mothers are fearful for their sons.'
John Fortune: 'Not all of them keep a detective agency on retainer as babysitters, though.'
Hardhat: 'Those dick-lickers have about as much chance of getting out here as I've got of ass-fucking Mother Teresa. Watch this shit.'
Hive: 'Hey, I've got a great name for this tremendous historical event that we've all been swept up in. Mao did the Long March, the Cherokee had a Trail of Tears, and now we've got... drumroll, please...the Road of Woe!'
Lohengrin: 'The Road of Woe?'
Hive: 'You don't like it?'
Lohengrin: 'Is stupid.'
Hive: 'The Woeful Way? The Terrible Trek?'
Lohengrin: 'Is more stupid.'