Wild Cards Volume 16 - DEUCES DOWN
Published by ibooks this time and sporting a cover by Jim Steranko, the long-awaited sixteenth volume in the series is almost a throwback to the first book in terms of structure, as the reader is once again presented with an anthology of individual tales spanning four decades. In a departure from previous volumes however, the focus this time is on those less well known members of the Wild Card fraternity, the 'Deuces' - those 'almost-aces' whose powers are negligible at best, and often more trouble than they're worth.
After an Introduction (by Walton Simons), we're on board for the first clandestine moon landings in 1968 with Storming Space (by Michael Cassutt), as Cash Mitchell finds that his unique talents are deemed essential for a successful lift-off. A year later, and Tommy Downs discovers his own gift while covering the 1969 World Series in Four Days in October (by John J. Miller), and decides to follow his nose when it becomes apparent that the Dodgers have an ace in the hole.
In Walking the Floor Over You (by Walton Simons), club owner, Bob Cortland makes a splash during the 1977 New York Blackout, when he gets embroiled in some monkey business while trying to protect a beautiful employee from her past. Bradley Finn rides into the eighties in A Face for the Cutting Room Floor (by Melinda M. Snodgrass), and has to look beneath the surface when a missing movie star spells disaster for his dad's producing career.
When a lady of the night seeks sanctuary after witnessing a drugs deal gone wrong in Father Henry's Little Miracle (by Daniel Abraham), James Spector sets his sights on the church, comes face to face with a deuce, and finds God is not on his side; while Gary Bushorn falls out of the sky and finds hmself a prisoner of circumstances in Promises (by Stephen Leigh), and discovers home is where his heart is.
Finally, the Wild Cards enter the 21st century With a Flourish and a Flair (by Kevin Andrew Murphy), as Topper loses her hat and finds Club Chaos lives up to its name when the newest teen sensations in residence do everything but help her find it.
So after seven years, was Deuces Down worth the wait? Well... ye-e-es. Sort of. There's certainly nothing wrong with it - if truth be told, it's one of the more consistent anthology entries in terms of quality, and delves into a hitherto unexplored sub-region of the Wild Cards universe. It's just that after such a long time, instead of plonking us back into the chronology that had been so painstakingly created over previous volumes, the reader is taken back to square one - well, 1968 anyway - in what could be best described as a companion piece to the first volume. Here, we get an alternate history of the Wild Cards as viewed from the sidelines.
Also, The fact that no attempt has been made at bridging the stories means that it is the most disjointed of all the books so far, and cannot even be considered a novel, let alone a mosaic novel, as the title page would have you believe. This must surely count as a lost opportunity since the writers have continually shown that it can be achieved to great effect with a little effort. Even Wild Cards and Aces Abroad had articles and journal extracts to keep the story together. Oh, well.
On the plus side, though, the stories range from the passable to the very good, and one of them (in this reviewer's opinion) can even be considered amongst the best in the series. Things start off promisingly with Storming Space, a captivating sequel-of-sorts to A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes - Michael Cassutt's previous account of the space-race and one of the highlights of Card Sharks. In this first-person yarn, we get to know Cash Mitchell, a slightly shady deuce whose gravity-defying talent seems to be a variation on Hiram Worcester's as he gets enlisted to be part of the first, and only, attempt to land on the moon. The amusing twist being that in this alternate world of exiled Takisians and metahumans, no-one actually cares.
Walking the Floor Over You is another enjoyable dip into the past and presents us with a deuce who's nom de plume - assuming he has one - must surely be 'Puddleman'. That's better than 'Snotman', but only just. Luckily, Bob Cortland's hidden talent does have some uses as he gets embroiled in a double kidnapping in the Big Apple. Even better, The Sleeper makes one of his regular cameo appearances when he gets hired by Bob, along with Hiram Worcester (in better days) and old standby, Jube.
With a Flourish and a Flair has a few amusing moments, but is basically an extremely lightweight tale about a missing hat where almost nothing happens. However, it's notable for not only introducing a young John Fortune, who will play a central role in the next volume, but for being the only story set in the present day and thus allowing the reader to finally catch up with the doings of various Wildcarders not heard from since 1995's Black Trump.
The real ace in the pack however, is Stephen Leigh's contribution, Promises, as we find out what happened next to one of the minor characters in the previous volume, Gary Bushorn ('The Burning Man'?), after he flew Gregg Hartmann and Hannah to their destiny in Ireland. Somehow managing (apart from a 'Shite!' on the first page) to avoid all the blarney, begorrah's and other clichés that authors fall prey to whenever they write about the emerald isle, this tale is a moving, intimate portrait of life in exile for three characters who have little to thank the Wild Card for, but who just get on with the pain of living as best they can. In Gary and Caitlyn, Leigh manages, in just over forty pages, to turn a couple of bit players into fully realised characters deserving of our emotions.
All in all, an enjoyable, if low key, return to the Wild Cards universe. The next volume would prove to be the real comeback, though.
Bob Cortland: 'You can't cover her 24 hours a day. When you're asleep, I'll take over.'
Croyd: 'I won't be sleeping on this job. Later. I'll sleep later.'
Gary Bushorn: 'Sometimes you have to think about yourself first.'
Caitlyn: 'Maybe. But then you have to live with everyone else afterward.'
Roger: 'Jim, regular people can't see through walls.'
Gimcrack: 'Sure they can. All they need are X-ray glasses. Or windows.'