For anyone with the slightest interest in contemporary, non-children’s fantasy, the forthcoming HBO adaptation of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or the first volume thereof, at any rate) has has to be the most eagerly anticipated TV series for a long while. Entertainment Weekly has some exclusive pictures.
None of the volumes in this internal trilogy within the long-running Wild Cards series compared well with ealier installments. This third book was probably the best of the three, however. Unlike the first two – which were presented as a series of interlinked short stories threaded together with one longer narrative, this one is a genuine ‘mosaic novel’ – all the narratives of the different characters and writers are set out as one seamless text (disregarding section breaks). In this case, the text is divided into long chapters counting down from Eight to the story’s climax at Zero.
One of the problems with the Card Sharks trilogy has been uneven character choice. In the first book, the main character was a pretty uninspiring arson investigator, a woman who wasn’t even a Wild Card victim. She is still present in the latter two books, but only as a minor character. In the middle book, a new character is introduced, and, in the context of that volume she’s pretty redundant, but in the final book she’s upgraded to main-character-hood. Unfortunately, she’s also quite whiny and her sections take up too much space.
I think maybe one deeper problem with the three books (apart from the fact that the basic premise of the story involves a partial reboot of Wild Cards alternate history) is that they seem to have been envisioned as a way of tying up a bunch of loose ends – in particular, the Jumpers – aces who can swap their consciousness into the body of another person – and Gregg Hartmann, the one-time presidential candidate and secret ace Puppetman. It also leaves a big loose end hanging at the end, with one of the main characters suddenly deciding to be evil. And the covers of the books are crappy; that’s not a major flaw, of course, but a book’s presentation does influence the way you think of it.
So now I’m faced with a quandary. The next book in the series, the sixteenth, is also the rarest, and will set me back about $100 to get hold of a copy. I’m not going to rush to buy it, but at the same time I do want to get up to date with the series, which appears to have found a new lease of life in the past few years.
This is the fourteenth Wild Cards book and the second in an internal trilogy consisting of Card Sharks, Marked Cards and Black Trump. The first book wasn’t brilliant, being a disjointed, scene-setting, prequel-ish, rewriting of history sort of a story.
This volume was better, though. Instead of being focused on the past, the narrative here moves forwards consistently as things actually happen in the story’s present. The story adopts the usual format of a number short stories/novellas alternating with an episodic narrative about one central character – in this case, former Senator, presidential candidate and ace, Gergg Hartmann – an important player in several of the earlier Wild Cards novels.
This structure is generally effective and was, for the most part, in this book. However, the Gregg Hartmann sections tail off in interest towards the end. Most of the other stories are pretty strong, although, Sage Walker’s ‘A Breath of Life’, introducing a new and so far peripheral character, was fairly weak. The strongest part, I thought, was ‘Feeding Frenzy’ by Walter Jon Williams, where Croyd Crenson and Black Shadow embark on a mission to destroy the Card Sharks – with a fair amount of success.
The general thrust of the story isn’t much altered by Crenson and Shad’s efforts, though and by the end, all Wild Card-infected people are facing grave danger in the form of a deadly virus. This sets the scene for a potentially thrilling conclusion to the trilogy – which will be much needed, frankly.
For the uninitiated, the Wild Card virus was a disease genetically engineered by an alien race genetically identical to humans and tested on Earth in 1948. Its effects are to kill horribly the vast majority of its victims, to turn to mutants – ‘jokers’ – the majority of the rest, and, for the remaining minority of a minority, to bestow superpowers – these are the ‘aces’. The Wild Cards books are gritty, alternate history superhero stories, and, for the most part, quite entertaining. The series is the brainchild of George R R Martin (although he didn’t contribute, writing-wise, to this book) and some of his writing and roleplaying friends. Numerous authors have been involved in the project over the years.
Card Sharks wasn’t one of the most entertaining books in the sequence. The format of the books generally varies – the first book was a set of short stories detailing various episodes in the world of the Wild Card virus, others have been true collaborative, ‘mosaic’ novels, a couple have been written by single authors. This one takes the most common form: one longer, unified narrative broken up by shorter episodes penned by different writers. The difference here is that each of the episodes is a first person narrative of things that have happened in the past. The book is set in the early nineties and the stories within the story go back as far as the fifties.
The book works well enough as a prelude to things to come later in the three-book sequence, but the heavy reliance on these backward-looking stories robs the book of emotive and narrative force. In other words, everything the reader learns has already happened, is history.
The story running through the book, appropriately named ‘The Ashes of Memory’, sees a young female fire investigator looking into the deaths of hundreds of jokers in an arson attack on a church, by following leads and interviewing various jokers and aces, she learns far more than she bargained for about the background to the attack.
Basically, it appears to be the latest incident in a conspiracy that has lasted for forty years or more. The problem is that, with the reader (this reader, at any rate) having already read twelve books about the fall-out of that fateful day in 1948, it strains belief that this conspiracy is only now coming to light, that those who have witnessed it in action are only now speaking out, that the conspiracy is only now taking action to kill Wild Card victims on a large scale.
The episodes narrated by the investigators interviewees are generally interesting and readable. There’s an alternate history version of the early stages of the space race, a tale of a centaur doctor unknowingly being used to infect poor jokers in Kenya with AIDS, an private investigator and ace being hired by Orson Welles to look after Marylin Monroe and prevent the film they’re working on from being sabotaged.
This latter story provides the book’s highlight – the detective and Monroe have a relationship – she seems to have sex with any man she meets. Then Monroe betrays him to save her own life. And, because this is an alternate history universe, Marylin didn’t necessarily die like she did in reality.
Card Sharks was a bit of a disappointment, but that hasn’t been uncommon with the first books in Wild Cards‘s internal trilogies. It certainly won’t stop me reading on.