Wild Cards Volume 4 - ACES ABROAD
After the exciting conclusion to the first trilogy, volume four begins the new triad in the now regular Wild Cards format of individual stories with an interlinking narrative. This time, our guide throughout the book is the mayor of Jokertown, Xavier Desmond (written by George R.R. Martin), who is part of a delegation of aces, jokers and politicians on a World Health Organisation sponsored fact-finding tour to see the effects of the virus in other countries.
Before that, a Tint of Hatred: Prologue (by Steven Leigh) introduces us to Sara Morgenstern, a respected reporter for The Washington Post as she reminds herself of why she's REALLY going on the upcoming tour. We get the first extract From The Journal of Xavier Desmond, then it's back to The Tint of Hatred: Part 1 (by Steven Leigh) where we get an inkling of the trouble to come once the tour reaches Syria as we meet the slightly unreasonable Nur al-Allah and his sister, Misha, while Sara makes Gregg Hartmann sweat a little before the tour starts.
Another entry From The Journal of Xavier Desmond then its Beasts of Burden (by John J. Miller) wherein the awful Ti Malice makes his debut as the tour hits Haiti, and Chrysalis sheds some of her customary cool when she experiences some of the local customs. The Tint of Hatred: Part 2 has Hartmann charming Sara before Blood Rites (by Leanne C. Harper) takes the tour to Guatemala. Here we meet Xbalanque and Hunapu, the 'Hero Twins', two aces on a mission from gods as they lead their people to the promised land.
Some more extracts From The Journal of Xavier Desmond follow, as well as The Tint of Hatred: Parts 3 & 4 wherein Hartmann experiences some of the Rio nightlife, before finally getting what he wants from the press in South Africa.
Down by the Nile (by Gail Gerstner-Miller) has the tour reaching Egypt where Peregrine meets the Living Gods who predict promising things to come. A further extract From The Journal of Xavier Desmond is followed by the final part of The Tint of Hatred in which the junket finally reaches Syria, and Hartmann meets his match in Nur al-Allah.
Another interlude From The Journal of Xavier Desmond before the tour arrives in Asia in The Teardrop of India (by Walton Simons), wherein a production company has to put its movie on hold when the leading man heads off to the jungle and a visiting diplomat points out the obvious. Then Down in the Dreamtime (by Edward Bryant) sees Cordelia Chaisson visiting Australia and introduces the aborigine shaman, Wyungare who teaches her to talk to the animals.
A further entry From The Journal of Xavier Desmond is followed by Zero Hour (by Lewis Shiner) where the junket reaches Japan, and Peregrine fulfils a prophecy by asking a missing ace to perform a deed for herself and another for a friend. Two more entries From The Journal of Xavier Desmond and then Puppets (by Victor Milán) moves the action to Germany where Gregg Hartmann becomes the guest of a dysfunctional terrorist cel out to make a killing.
The troupe hits France in Mirrors of the Soul (by Melinda Snodgrass) where Jack Braun and Tachyon come to an understanding of sorts and the doctor's grandson, Blaise makes his first appearance. In the final story, Legends (by Michael Cassutt) Georgy Polyakov offers us a secret history of Russia and travels to England to ask an old comrade on the junket a favour.
There's a final extract From The Journal of Xavier Desmond somewhere over the Atlantic before an article From The New York Times concludes the journey.
A bit of a mixed bag this time around, in a volume that is possibly one of the least popular entries in the series. While the idea of seeing how Wild Cards are treated in other countries is a good one, it might have been better for this to have come later in the series once readers had gotten to know the regular characters a little more, rather than being faced with a host of mostly new faces just four books in.
Again, this suffers from the same problems that beset the first volume, ie. a lack of cohesion. While there is a token attempt at continuity in that the plot follows a tour around the globe, the stories themselves are pretty much self-contained, although many of the new characters will be used again in the future. The book also suffers from having a major character being held hostage twice on the same tour.
That aside, while this first book in the 'political' trilogy cannot be considered a Wild Cards highpoint, there is still some good stuff contained within the covers. George R.R. Martin's Xavier Desmond provides a calm, and often moving, commentary that contrasts well with the action all around him, and injects some much-needed joker perspective to the series. Jokertown's second-most important citizen, Chrysalis also gets her first solo adventure in Beasts of Burden, and not before time.
Although they appear only briefly in the future, Leanne C. Harper's account of the rise of the 'Hero Twins in Blood Rites is highly engrossing once you get round the unpronouncable names, while The Teardrop of India introduces a calm and highly resourceful clairvoyant ace in G.C. Jayewardene, and may well be the only sympathetic portrayal of a political character in the entire series. This one also re-introduces an ace who will play an important role in books to come.
And since everybody deserves a second chance, it's nice to see Jack Braun achieving some kind of absolution for his past in Mirrors of the Soul. This plot thread will reach will reach its climax in volume six, Ace in the Hole.
From The Journal of Xavier Desmond: 'Heroism is a perishable commodity.'
Herr Neumann: 'The political police. They don't call them the PoPo for nothing.'
From The Journal of Xavier Desmond: 'Golden ages give way to dark ages, as any student of history knows, and as all of us are currently finding out.'