Wild Cards Volume 13 - CARD SHARKS
With a new trilogy comes a new publisher, with Baen replacing the familiar Bantam Spectra logo of the previous dozen volumes, and Barclay Shaw taking over from Tim Truman as cover artist. Released a mere month after Turn of the Cards, Card Sharks is subtitled 'Book 1 of a New Cycle', but for this site's purposes will hereafter be referred to as volume 13.
One thing that does return, however, is the old format of individual stories connected by a linking narrative. In this case, The Ashes of Memory (by Stephen Leigh) has 'nat' arson investigator, Hannah Davies, assigned to what seems to be a deliberate attack on Father Squid's church that has left hundreds of jokers dead or severely injured.
After some gentle persuasion from Father Squid himself, and with occasional help from Quasiman, she delves deeper into the reasons behind the fire, only to discover a hidden agenda against the Wild Cards that goes as far back as the virus itself. " 'Til I Kissed You" (by William F. Wu) has Japanese joker Chop-Chop revealing to her his connection with Jack Nicholson, his close encounter with a little rich girl on the wrong side of the tracks, and of the first signs of something rotten in Jokertown.
Hannah makes a hospital visit and meets Dr Finn in The Ashes of Memory Part 2, and in The Crooked Man (by Melinda M. Snodgrass) he tells of the dark period he spent in Kenya as a volunteer for the Peace Corps, and of the part Dr Faneuil played in dealing with the country's AIDS crisis. In The Ashes of Memory Part 3, Hannah turns down a bribe and discovers the right stuff when she reads about A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes (by Michael Cassutt), a memoir chronicling the Wild Cards' involvement in the space race of the fifties.
Hannah faces some personal problems in The Ashes of Memory Part 4, before meeting the Mechanic in A Wind from Khorasan: The Narrative of J. Robert Belew (by Victor Milan), in which he recounts the role he and other aces played in Jimmy Carter's disasterous attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages. Hannah makes a stand in The Ashes of Memory Part 5, before jetting off to Vietnam where she is met by Croyd Crenson who, in The Long Sleep (by Roger Zelazny) remembers his early days, with his introduction to Pan Rudo and their attempts, through hypnosis, to make Croyd master of his own destiny.
Quasiman plays a joke on Hannah in The Ashes of Memory Part 6, before introducing her to a dead man in "Cursum Perficio" (by Kevin Andrew Murphy), as ace Hollywood gumshoe, Nick Williams recounts his experiences with Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles in the sixties, and a protection job that went badly.
Hannah discovers the enemy hiding in plain site in The Ashes of Memory Part 7, before she hears The Lamia's Tale (by Laura J. Nixon), and learns money doesn't buy happiness in high society, but the Wild Card sometimes can improve the situation, while the final part of The Ashes of Memory has Hannah finding the answers she's been seeking, but looking for help in all the wrong places.
For the long term reader of the series, it would not have been unreasonable to expect a little more from the launch book of a 'new cycle' than the product that actually ended up on the shelves. While this is a better book than One-Eyed Jacks, for example, this entry does not linger in the memory as others have done - and as with One-Eyed Jacks, this first part of the triad does not bode well for the rest of the saga. Fortunately, as with that trilogy, the books do improve as the storyline gathers momentum.
The main reason for this is the structure of the tale itself. Because everything is told in flashback as part of Hannah's interview process, the reader is always one step removed from the action and, as a result, is never completely involved in the drama. Also, since this volume sets out to detail the Card Sharks' manipulation behind many important events in the 20th century in order to destroy or discredit the Wild Cards, you just know each story's going to end on a down note, which lends a grim inevitability to the whole book it could well do without.
And then there's our guide through the book, Hannah, who unfortunately just isn't all that interesting a person. While there's nothing actually wrong with her, there's little that's noteworthy about her either - a common problem among female characters in this series. Part of this can be blamed on the central conceit behind the whole Wild Cards mythos. With a cast full of extraordinary characters and personalities, a 'nat' has to be pretty damn special to stand out. Even Yeoman, with his extraordinary skills, bowed out gracefully halfway through the series once he'd fulfilled his vendetta.
As for the story itself, well, it's a conspiracy thriller with all the failings of that genre. Obviously, when reading a fantasy such as the Wild Cards, suspension of disbelief is an essential requirement to the enjoyment of the story. But to anyone of reasonable intelligence (with the exception of Oliver Stone), the notion of a successful conspiracy in the 'real' world is pretty far-fetched. To quote Benjamin Franklin, 'In order for three people to keep a secret, two must be dead.' Getting the reader to believe that superheroes and aliens exist is one thing - the writers laid down these rules right at the beginning and stuck to them - but to also propose that a malevolent, international cabal has been operating successfully behind the scenes for the last 50 years is a bit too much for this reader. Add nazis to the equation and you're just asking for trouble.
On the positive side however, there is some good stuff in here. Taking its cue from Tom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff' (or 'True Brothers' as it is known in this surrogate universe), Michael Cassutt's A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes is an engrossing alternate history of the American space program. Elsewhere, Roger Zelazny makes a welcome return to his creation for The Long Sleep. Sadly, this would be his last contribution to the Wild Cards series before his untimely death in 1995. And while not the best of the Sleeper's stories, is still one of the highlights of the volume and sets Croyd up as major player in the upcoming books.
Victor Milán's zippy A Wind from Khorasan: The Narrative of J. Robert Belew is also superior and finally elaborates on the story behind the failed Iranian hostage debacle hinted at in the very first volume - revealing a little of Billy Ray's history as he gets to prove himself on his first mission. It also explains the reasoning behind Jay Ackroyd's ongoing hatred of guns. Meanwhile, Kevin Andrew Murphy's "Cursum Perficio" lets the reader play 'spot the famous face' in a decent 'Sunset Boulevard' parody - both narrators tell their story from the bottom of a pool - with the ace, Will-o'-Wisp in the William Holden role, and a surviving Marilyn Monroe doing her Gloria Swanson bit.
The oft-mentioned movie, 'Jokertown' - the Wild Cards equivalent of 'Chinatown' - is explored more fully in this volume, with Marilyn Monroe playing the Faye Dunaway role opposite Jack Nicholson.
Chop-Chop: 'Nothing's ever simple in Jokertown.'
The Librarian: 'I'm not worried, Major. Adventure fiction is bad fiction. We're having an adventure. Surely I can't die in a bad novel?'
J. Robert Belew: 'You're going to need an ace name.'
Billy Ray: 'What's the matter with Wolverine?'
J. Robert Belew: 'Your alma mater might sue. No, I have the name for you. I name thee Carnifex.'