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Review of Black Trump edited by George R R Martin

22 November 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Review of Marked Cards edited by George R R Martin

5 November 2010 Leave a comment

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.

To Beijing

1 November 2010 Leave a comment

In the hostel I was staying at in Qingdao, I was sharing a room with about four other people two nights ago. Around midnight people started going to bed. I was on the internet on my bed, having spoken, briefly, to Charlie and watched some Prison Break. I prepared for bed, too. There was one Chinese guy in the bed next to mine, who seemed to spend most of his time in the room on his computer, conveniently placed on the table right next to his bed. He stayed up for maybe an hour or so, tapping away on an instant messenger program, his keystrokes amplified by the table. The previous night – my sick night – he’d been clicking away till the earliy hours on his phone. Even when he finally packed it in, his noise production continued – sniffing and blowing his nose, scratching loudly. Fucker.

Then, a bit later in the night, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere out in the corridor desperately saying things like, ‘No!’ and ‘Get out!’ I couldn’t hear any other voice. After a few moments worrying about what to do I got up and went into the corridor. The door to one of the twin rooms opposite was open a few inches and a man was standing inside. I knocked and asked what was going on. The door closed and the one-sided argument continued – the woman begging her boyfriend – I assume – to leave, the man not saying anything. I went down and told the two old Chinese men on duty and one of them followed me up and knocked on the door. I’m not sure what happened – I went to bed – but I think they probably just stopped the argument so the person knocking would go away.

My main task the next day was to travel to Beijing on the train. As I checked out of the hostel, I had one of the women at reception write down what I wanted in Chinese so I could show it to someone at the train station. As I was queueing up for a ticket, I noticed that one of the counters showed ‘English language counter’ on the display above it, so I didn’t need my translation. There was only standing room available for that day, so that’s what I plumped for. The ticket was 275 yuan, about £26 pounds or so.

For the first hour and a half of the five and half hour journey I was able to sit, but then a young woman needed her/my seat. She got off shortly after at the very next stop. However, by this time, the train seemed completely full, so I stood or occasionally crouched in the end of the carriage. I did a fair amount of reading on the trip. Fortunately, Marked Cards is a lot better than its immediate predecessor, Card Sharks.

Before I left Qingdao, I’d had word from Charlie that she’d be prepared to meet me off the train. Just before I left, I e-mailed her the details of my train. Unfortunately, she was busy all day and wasn’t able to read my e-mail or meet me. I’d printed out details for a hostel in Beijing that Habiba had stayed at when she was here a few months ago. I followed the directions on my printout and took the subway to Wangfujing Station (noting with a hint of pleasure and surprise the English accent of the English translations on the line four announcements). There, however, the directions seemed to break down.

I wandered round for a long while, my backpack weighing heavily on me and my less than perfect spine. I decided I couldn’t find the Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel, and so checked into the Eastern Morning Sun Hostel instead.

This isn’t really a hostel as we would understand it. It’s a cheap (in multiple senses of the word) hotel located on the 4th basement level of its building. On the pro side, I got a room to myself and cheaply – about £10. On the con side, the place is quite grim. My room is a fairly clean white box with a bed, desk, TV and chair in it, but it smells subtly but pervasively of old cigarette smoke. It made me think I was going to sleep in an ashtray.

The communal toilets smell of piss – some I’ve been to in China just smell of sewage, so that wasn’t too bad. They don’t provide toilet paper, though – not even one shared roll outside, which is the general practice here. The showers were like something out of Prison Break. The shower room was done out in dirty, broken blue and white tiles, half of the stall weren’t functional, there was no door, there were no shower curtains (although there were rails and some loops to indicate that such things must’ve existed in the past). The water was hot and consistent, though, and I had the place to myself.

The place also has no laundry facility. When I approached one of the staff with my bag of dirty clothes, she showed me a plastic bowl. For this reason, if nothing else, I’m going to check out today.

I’m currently at a nearby Starbucks, where I’ve had a sandwich for breakfast. Can’t get on the internet here, though – it’s only for residents of China. I think I’ve figured out where that hostel is, though. I think I was simply facing the wrong way when I tried to follow the directions. My coffee’s nearly finished, so I’m off to take a look.

Review of Card Sharks edited by George R R Martin

12 September 2010 Leave a comment

Card Sharks is the thirteenth book in the Wild Cards series and the first in ‘new cycle’ of three books.

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.