Wild Cards #19: Busted Flush

We need to talk, like when you talked, too; but the talk stops short, shy of the truth. Now that you’ve won the war, can you bring the truce, when the fight is all you’ve learned? Deep down you know that there ain’t no trust. Down in your bones, this is a busted flush. (…Or something like that, anyway. This is another obscure one I couldn’t find lyrics for and had to do by ear – “Busted Flush”, by Vienna Ditto). Anyways, let’s bust a move, bust a rhyme, and bust on Busted Flush, edited by George R.R. Martin.

Synopsis:

In the six decades since the alien plague known as the “Wild Card virus” spread a wave of mutations across the globe, humanity has begun to come to terms with its consequences. Grotesque half-human creatures known as “jokers” inhabit an underworld of their own, while the legendary prodigies known as “aces” have become real-world superheroes, complete with colorful names and costumes.

Now a new generation of aces has taken its place on the world stage, becoming crucial players in international events. At the United Nations, veteran ace John Fortune has assembled a team of young aces, known as the Committee, to assist at trouble spots around the world – including an invasion of zombies in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, a freak nuclear explosion in a small Texas town, and a fateful showdown with the forces of the oil-rich Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.

But their opponents have their own aces and jokers ready, including a Marxist revolutionary, a brutal mercenary, a young boy with apocalyptic powers, and a sinister arm of the FBI known as SCARE.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Wow, that synopsis feels really familiar. Almost like a repeat of the synopsis of the last Wild Cards novel. But that’s not it, because the synopsis is accurate to this one; so I guess the last novel’s synopsis was a pre-emptive repeat of this one. A prepeat? How do you even do that? Does Tor have a time machine they don’t want us to know about? (The X-Files theme music begins playing.)

Busted Flush features a ton of different plotlines. Sometimes, that can result in a book feeling unfocused and disorganized; but in this case, all of the stories work within the common uniting theme of the new generation of heroes discovering they’re in over their heads

Not that there aren’t a few missteps along the way. Carnifex and The Midnight Angel have broken up, rendering that whole subplot of Death Draws Five even more pointless… no, wait, looks like they’re back together again. Um, so what was the point of that, exactly?

I also have to say that it feels weird to have Radical as a villain, given how long Captain Trips has been portrayed as a sympathetic protagonist; but it’s hard to see how they could have done anything else with him after he turned out to be such an asshole in Black Trump. At least it’s made clear that the Radical is not Mark; that he’s betrayed everything Mark ever believed in and fought for, and that Mark’s consciousness still exists and is trying to take his body back. I found the briefly-mentioned detail that the Radical’s golden peace symbol had stopped glowing to be a simple yet powerful piece of visual symbolism.

There’s also that little incident where Amazing Bubbles cheats on her girlfriend, and you should know by now how I feel about protagonists cheating on their significant others – if you don’t, go ahead and re-read my review of Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, I gave a pretty good rant about it there – but this story manages to keep her sympathetic because it ties into the whole “in over their heads” things: she keeps trying to do good, but keeps screwing up, and she knows she’s screwing up but can’t figure out how to stop. And ultimately, after making a mess of her life, being used as a pawn by villains, and becoming a wanted criminal, she redeems herself with an act of self-sacrifice by absorbing Little Fat Boy’s nuclear explosion. I’m okay with heroes making mistakes when they acknowledge that they did indeed make mistakes which require atonement. It’s when they engage in hypocritical self-righteous self-justification that I get mad.

Final Rating: 4/5

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Wild Cards #18: Inside Straight

For a music-themed opening to this novel, I couldn’t think of anything but The Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s “Inside Straight”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any, you know, lyrics for me to write down. So, you’ll just have to imagine it playing inside your head. Oh yeah, groove to that funky jazz. Then draw some cards for an Inside Straight, edited by George R.R. Martin.

Synopsis:

In the six decades since the alien plague known as the “Wild Card virus” spread a wave of mutations across the globe, humanity has begun to come to terms with its consequences. Grotesque half-human creatures known as “jokers” inhabit an underworld of their own, while the legendary prodigies known as “aces” have become real-world superheroes, complete with colorful names and costumes.

Now a new generation of aces has taken its place on the world stage, becoming crucial players in international events. At the United Nations, veteran ace John Fortune has assembled a team of young aces, known as the Committee, to assist at trouble spots around the world – including an invasion of zombies in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, a freak nuclear explosion in a small Texas town, and a fateful showdown with the forces of the oil-rich Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.

But their opponents have their own aces and jokers ready, including a Marxist revolutionary, a brutal mercenary, a young boy with apocalyptic powers, and a sinister arm of the FBI known as SCARE.

Source: Back of the book, and here’s Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Wild Cards had hit a rut. The idea was always to progress from past to present, showing Wild Cards existing in a changing world; but at some point, the books lost their grip on the zeitgeist. They seemed stuck in a Cold War mentality, all about great political machinations and government conspiracies. On top of that, the characters were getting stale: most obviously, rather than building up any new interesting villains, they kept going back to the well and resurrecting Ti Malice and the Nur just so they could be defeated again. All signs were clear: it was time for a change. Enter Inside Straight.

From the very first page, it’s almost like the universe has received a soft reboot. The cultural references have been brought up to date: rather than everyone talking about Communism and the War on Drugs, there’s now references to blogging and reality television. What’s more, the entire societal attitude towards Wild Cards has changed. They are no longer the X-Men, hated and feared by everyone and the subject of a new plot to wipe them from the Earth every other week – now, Aces are treated like real-life superheroes in America. The problem with the cast roster is addressed with the introduction of a whole slew of new Aces: some sweet, some nasty, some mystery – plenty of cheerable heroes and booable villains to provide fresh grist for new stories. They even make returning character John Fortune, who you’ll recall I was not too fond of in the previous book, somewhat interesting and tolerable for a change by partnering him up with Sekhmet.

The book also has a strong narrative arc, introducing the new characters as fake heroes on the reality TV show and having them develop into real heroes in the Egypt crisis. At the beginning, the focus is on the reality show and the problems in Egypt are just something happening in the background; but the story progresses, the focus changes, until Egypt ends up being the climax while the outcome of the television show is just a footnote.

Oddly, none of the stuff talked about in the synopsis happens: no Committee, no zombies in New Orleans, no nuclear explosion in Texas. It’s almost like the publisher accidentally printed the synopsis of a different Wild Cards book entirely on the back of this one. But what are the odds of a screw-up like that, eh? I mean, that synopsis hasn’t appeared on the back of any previous Wild Cards book, and it’s not like the publisher could have accidentally included spoilers from the future. (Twilight Zone theme music begins playing.)

Inside Straight provides a much-needed fresh shuffle for the Wild Cards series.

Final Rating: 3/5

Wild Cards #17: Death Draws Five

Death antes up and draws five. What do you do, hotshot? Raise? Call? …Go fish? Let’s hold ‘em or fold ‘em for Death Draws Five, by John T. Miller and edited by George R.R. Martin.

Synopsis:

John Fortune – son of Peregrine and Fortunato, two of the most powerful and popular Aces the world has ever known – has finally turned his card. He’s an Ace! And proud of it… except that his new powers put him on a collision course with enemies he never knew he had. Is he the new messiah? Or the Anti-Christ? Or is he just a kid who’s in over his head and about to drown?

It’s really quite simple. Mr. Nobody wants to do his job. The Midnight Angel wants to serve her Lord. Billy Ray, dying from boredom, wants some action. John Nighthawk wants to uncover the awful secret behind his mysterious power. Fortunato wants to rescue his son from the clutches of a cryptic Vatican office. John Fortune just wants to catch Siegfried and Ralph’s famous Vegas review.

The problem is that all roads, whether they start in Turin, Italy, Las Vegas, Hokkaido, Japan, Jokertown, Snake Hill, the Short Cut, or Yazoo City, Mississippi, lead to Leo Barnett’s Peaceable Kingdom where the difference between the Apocalypse and Peace on Earth is as thin as a razor’s edge and where Death himself awaits the final terrible turn of the card.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

You know what I hate? When a science fiction story turns out to be a religious story in disguise. I came into this book expecting it to be a Wild Cards tale, and got Black Ops: Vatican instead. Apparently, one group of religious nutjobs is convinced that John Fortune is the second coming of Christ, and some other group of religious nutjobs is convinced that John Fortune is the Anti-Christ, and I’m supposed to be entertained by a story of these lunatics slaughtering each other and any innocent bystanders who happen to get between them. Never mind that there have been previous Aces, Jokers, and Deuces with divine or satanic appearances and Christ-like abilities such as healing or turning water into wine; everyone’s convinced that this little twerp is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and I have to spend the entire book listening to their delusional ravings about it. Oh, joy.

Now, maybe it’s not fair to John Fortune to immediately write him off as a little twerp. Really, he’s perfectly fine as a character; not overly annoying or whiny or Anakin-Skywalker-y. It’s just, when you introduce a child character by having everyone say how he’s the messiah and the chosen one and such a super special awesome child of prophecy who will save the world by bringing light to the darkness and balance to the Force – well, that’s just about the fastest way possible to make me hate him. When the book begins with everyone fawning over him and his specialness, I’m developing a mental image of him as a smug little shit, and no amount of later characterization is going to wipe away that first impression. Not that it helps matters that he spends the whole book getting kidnapped and shot at, resulting in characters I actually like such as Peregrine and Mr. Nobody reducing themselves to the role of human sandbags in order to absorb all the lead flying in his direction. Because if somebody has to die, well, I’m not going to vote for one of them. Fortunato does end up actually sacrificing his life for the git, but I don’t have as much of a problem with that since I’ve always hated Fortunato.

But let’s talk more about Peregrine getting shot full of holes while shielding John Fortune with her body, because it gave me traumatic flashbacks to Epoch: Evolution. In case you aren’t aware, because you probably aren’t, Epoch: Evolution is the low-budget made-for-TV sequel to the already B-grade sci-fi film Epoch. It was a “SyFy” channel original movie; to say it was not very good would be equivalent to saying the bottom of the ocean is slightly damp. The experience of watching it was, in fact, so traumatic as to permanently burn it into my memory. When I read the scene of Peregrine being shot, I thus immediately drew parallels with the mother character in Epoch: Evolution being killed by religious fanatics in an assassination attempt on her son. Although, in Epoch: Evolution, the attack took place off-screen – no sense shelling out the cash for the actress from the first movie to reprise her role if she’s just going to die right away, you see. Needless to say, a major character from the first film being summarily offed by religious nutjobs so the story can focus on her super-special-snowflake chosen-one child-of-prophecy was the first of many things about that film that made me want to throw up; and even though Peregrine doesn’t actually die, this story’s similarity is enough to make me want to follow suit. Get it? Follow “suit”? Because, you know, playing cards? A ha ha ha, ha ha, ha… I want to die.

Then there’s Carnifex and The Midnight Angel. I normally like Billy Ray, but having him working for Barnett does him no favors. And his storyline is far too predictable. He lost the woman he thought he might be his true love when she turned out to be an agent for the Card Sharks. He’s partnered with an extremely hot but also sexually repressed woman who views her feelings of lust as sinful. They have a meet-cute involving ice cream. You may as well just jump straight to the fucking, because blind men can see where this plotline is going. And, cherry on top, the after-sex scene where she wakes up to find the bed empty and thinks he’s abandoned her, but it turns out he just stepped out of the room to get something. Because no cliche is too hackneyed for this novel!

Now let’s talk about the return of Ti Malice… oops, too late, he’s already dead again. See, you may have thought it was an incredibly fitting and appropriate send-off when Popinjay originally defeated him; but the conclusion that his story was really begging for all along was for him to show up out of nowhere and then get killed by a single punch from Carnifex literally within one page of his reappearance. Because that’s how you handle a recurring villain. For instance, remember in The Force Awakens when Palpatine suddenly showed up, not dead after all, only to immediately get shot in the face and die? Followed by a “ba-dum-tss!” drumroll rimshot and canned studio laughter? Oh, right; that never happened, because it would have been monumentally stupid!

I have strict standards for what works I give one-star reviews to. Now matter how bad a book is, it can still scrape by with a two-star review so long as it is merely bad; to get the dreaded single star, it has to honestly offend me. I asked myself: this book is really, really bad, but is it more offensive than some of the previous Wild Cards stories I let skate by with only a finger-wagging? For instance, they had two different villains attempt to rape Sprout on two separate occasions, and I forgave them for that both times. Is this book really worse than either of those occasions? After much reflection, I have decided: yes. Those previous missteps, as individually offensive as they may have been, were just single blips in otherwise good or at least decent stories. Those individual scenes may have been so bad as to knock a full star off the final rating, but there was enough good material surrounding them to absorb the blow. In Death Draws Five, the badness is unremitting. There is no refuge to be found; each plot line is just as stupid as the others. And, though it does not indulge in the gratuitous rape attempts of the aforementioned books (though it did look for a while like it might, given the Witness’s threats towards The Midnight Angel at the end of their first confrontation), it is offensive to me in other ways. Bringing Ti Malice back from the dead just for Carnifex to re-kill him in under a page; the paint-by-numbers romance between Carnifex and The Midnight Angel; all the established characters martyring themselves in a child chosen-one plot that would make even George Lucas wince; just about any scene featuring the Hand or the Cardinal; reminding me that Fortunato exists; reminding me that Epoch: Evolution exists… No. This book is just unforgiveable.

Congratulations, Wild Cards, you’ve finally hit rock bottom. Sure, I gave out a one-star score once before, for Down and Dirty; but you only managed to make that one so bad by shoehorning gratuitous rape scenes into every single plotline. With Death Draws Five, you’ve taken off the training wheels and shown yourself capable of writing an equally terrible book without having to resort to rape at all. Well done, we’re all very impressed. Now please never write anything this bad again.

Final Rating: 1/5

Wild Cards #16: Deuces Down

Chuckin up them deuces. I told you that I’m leaving deuces. I know you’re mad, but so what. I wish you best of luck. And now I’m finna throw them deuces up… Gah, I can’t believe I’ve sunk to the level of using Chris Brown lyrics for an intro. I feel so dirty. In any case, let’s flip Deuces Down, edited by George R.R. Martin.

Synopsis:

On September 15, 1946, a biological weapon created by an alien race was accidentally detonated above the streets of New York City, killing countless numbers of men, women, and children. But those who survived the initial explosion soon began to wish they had died also, once they discoverd that they had been forever mutated by the virus unleashed in the blast.

Set in an alternate, shared-world universe, Deuces Down is the one place you’ll find such never-before-told tales as John J. Miller’s exciting 1969 World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Brooklyn Dodgers; Michael Cassutt’s first moon landing, when the whole world wasn’t watching; Walton Simons’ Great New York City Blackout of 1977; and Melinda M. Snodgrass’s account of Grace Kelly’s mysterious disappearance during the filming of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It’s a strange and terrifying world, where anything can happen. A world of Wild Cards.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

At first thought, revisiting the forgotten and overlooked stories of the thus-far neglected Deuces of the Wild Cards universe seems like a good idea. But once I actually started reading, the flaws in the approach became apparent to me. Most immediately apparent is the timeline issue. Previously, the Wild Cards books began in the past and then progressively moved towards the present, showing how an alternate history developed parallel to our own due to the changes wrought by the Wild Card virus. Deuces Down, however, brings that forward momentum to a crashing halt as it jumps backwards to points in time that the main narrative has already left behind. Worse, we know from the outset that none of these stories can have high stakes. There can’t be any major supervillain like the Astronomer, alien invasion like Tiamat, or conspiracy like the Card Sharks; there’s no way that sort of world-shaking threat would have passed by unremarked upon in the previous books. And when a character we’ve heard of before shows up, there’s no suspense as to the outcome: it’s hard to be in suspense about young Finn’s career and dating life when we already know he becomes a doctor at Tachyon’s clinic and ends up dating Clara.

Even the stories which did have potential fail to capitalize on it. The biggest offender in this regard is “Four Days in October”, the backstory of Digger Downs. While Digger has appeared in the novels before, we’ve never heard about how he got into the journalism business, so a story about him getting his first big break by using his power to uncover a scandalous secret ace had a lot of potential. Potential which it then squandered by revealing that there was no secret ace, no scandal, and no story. It’s not Digger Downs’s first big important adventure after all; it’s just a few ultimately uneventful days from his childhood life. That doesn’t make for a very interesting tale.

There is, however, one actually decent story in this collection, which manages to save it from a negative recommendation. That would be the final story, “With A Flourish And A Flair”. It was fast-paced and energetic, with interesting characters and surprising plot-twists. Not to mention, some of the most interesting ace powers yet seen. While Topper with her power to pull anything out of a top hat was first introduced in the Card Sharks arc, this is the first time a story has actually focused on her as a character, and it is much welcomed. On top of that, we get Jim and his power to make any product he buys work exactly as advertised, no matter how ridiculous the claims are or how snake-oil the product is. It’s fun and exciting and intriguing and pretty much everything I’d like from a Wild Cards story.

Finally, the illustrations in this book were a real treat. Take the ones of Demise, for instance. A lot of the previous pictures I’ve seen of Demise make him look like kind of a twit: greasy black hair slicked over a receding hairline and a pencil mustache. They make him look like a snooty waiter at some stereotypical fancy-pants French restaurant. The illustrations in this book, on the other hand, make him look like the long-lost twin brother of Alucard from Hellsing. As a major fan of Demise, guess which portrayal I prefer?

DemiseAndAlucard

Final Rating: 3/5

Wild Cards #15: Black Trump

Everything’s coming up aces… Ace of Spades, that is. Or clubs, whatever. Let’s throw down Black Trump, edited by George R.R. Martin

Synopsis:

Finally flushed into the open by the heroism of a joker and an uninfected lady reporter, the Card Shark conspiracy faces destruction. But a cornered animal is a dangerous animal, and the Sharks still have one final card to play: the Black Trump. The ultimate biological weapon. The Black Trump simply kills all those with the wild card virus written into their genes, joker or ace -and its success rate is one hundred percent. In New York’s teeming Jokertown, in the Joker’s Quarter of old Jerusalem, in the Free People’s State of Vietnam where the ace Mark Meadows rules in a sixties vision of love and peace, the bombs are ticking…and time is running out.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

This book has problems.

For one thing, it has too many interweaving plotlines: Puppetman and Hannah travel to Ireland to meet Churchill, Carnifex and April Harvest pursue them, Captain Trips and Sprout get abducted, Zoe and Croyd are sent to acquire a nuclear bomb for the Black Dog, Popinjay and his gang are hunting Sharks… it’s too many threads, and the book jumps back and forth between them at too rapid a pace.

For another, the series starts going into comic-book “nobody stays dead” territory by pointlessly bringing back the Nur and Sayid. Oh, you thought they were killed by the Aces Abroad tour? Well, turns out they survived and have still been alive all this time, it’s just that nobody thought to mention it until now. I mean, alright, I’ll grant you that the chapter where the Nur got his throat slit said at the end that he wasn’t quite dead yet and that medics were arriving to try to save him; but Sayid? Dude got turned into a meat pancake by Hiram, and he was already in pretty poor health before that. My suspension of disbelief is throwing popcorn at the screen and shouting “bullshit!”

And then there’s yet another attempted rape scene of Mark’s daughter, which drags on for far too long and goes into far too much detail. Just who is it on the writing staff who has an unhealthy obsession with villains attempting to rape Sprout? Is it you, George R. R. Martin? Whoever it is: this is not the type of thing I’m interested in reading about. Once was too much; twice makes it seem like you have some creepy fetish. Please put your pen down and step away from the manuscript.

Then comes the long-awaited reappearance of the Radical, and what a disappointment that turned out to be. It has long been implied that the Radical embodies the best of Mark, just as Monster embodies the worst; that he is the shining paragon of which the other friends are limited aspects. But no, turns out Radical is just a big jerk; a hypocrite who literally kills people using a peace sign. He’s not even all that helpful: his first dramatic big fight scene is him needlessly drawing out a confrontation that Popinjay could have ended quickly and bloodlessly if the Radical hadn’t decided he needed to show off. Mark’s been trying to rediscover the Radical since all the way back at the beginning of the series; we waited fifteen books for him to finish his quest only to get this asshole as our reward? Joy.

Don’t even get me started on the whole goddamned stupid ‘redemption’ storyline for Puppetman, one of the nastiest villains to appear in the series. I mean, the Astronomer was pure evil because he fueled his powers with years of rape and murder; Puppetman not only did the same, but was arguably even worse because he was Kilgrave-ing it up and turning other people into his unwitting instruments, violating their minds and forcing them to act on his own depraved impulses. Oh, but Puppetman decides he’s sorry, and gets a big redemptive self-sacrificial death scene. Please. Next they’ll be having Ti Malice reform.

You remember Ti Malice, right? Really despicable and horrifying villain, got one of the most unique and interesting death scenes in the series? I sure hope the return of Sayid and the Nur isn’t the start of a trend of recycling old villains by bringing them back from the dead in ways that totally lessen the impact of their initial defeat, because it would really suck if they undid Ti Malice’s demise. But that would never happen, right?

By this point, you’re probably wondering, was there anything about the book I liked? Well, I thought it was kind of cool how Carnifex took advantage of his healing factor to mutilate himself and go undercover as a Joker, and also to implant air filters in his body to protect against the Black Trump – that was pretty clever. But otherwise? This is one of the weakest Wild Cards books of the series so far. Mr. Nobody prevents Sprout from actually being raped, meaning it just barely manages to avoid last place thanks to Down and Dirty’s numerous gratuitous rape scenes, but still: definitely not a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in checking out the series.

Final Rating: 2/5

Wild Cards #14: Marked Cards

We’ll make our mark, show the world what we can do; we’ll make our mark… Oh my God, I’ve already been reduced to making My Little Pony song references, and there are still like ten more review openings left to write for this series. I’m running out of references! I don’t actually know that much about cards! Help! …Let’s flip through some Marked Cards, edited by George R.R. Martin

Synopsis:

A beautiful young reporter and a small group of jokers and aces have unearthed evidence of a conspiracy of Cards Sharks, whose goal is the wholesale destruction of those afflicted with the Wild Card virus. But Hannah Davis and her handful of heroes have discovered the truth. Now it’s a desperate race to expose the Card Sharks, flush them into the open where they can be brought to justice. For the Card Sharks have a terrifying weapon, a Final Solution; they are almost ready to use…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

This book makes a lot of bad decisions. First and foremost: having Puppetman be the protagonist of the primary storyline.

No, you didn’t read that wrong. Puppetman. Protagonist of the main storyline. Puppetman. You do remember Puppetman, don’t you? The sick, sadistic, mind-controlling monster who murders and rapes and uses his power to force others to murder and rape on his behalf? Pushed his pregnant wife down a staircase so he could feed on the pain of their unborn child dying? Well, he’s a good guy now. Let’s all start cheering for Puppetman and rooting for him to succeed.

Look, I get the concept of a villain protagonist. Demise was one of my favorite Wild Cards characters, for crying out loud. But there is a fucking line where a character becomes too utterly vile for me to tolerate, and Puppetman is over that line. You cannot have a redemption story for Puppetman. He is irredeemable. He is one sick motherfucker, and it makes me sick to think that some writer looked at him and thought, “He’s not all that bad; I think we should turn him face”.

That’s only the biggest one, of course. There’s also the completely baffling decision to reveal Albert Einstein to have been the founder of the Card Sharks. Making a Jew who fled Nazi Germany in order to escape the Holocaust the mastermind behind a conspiracy to commit mass genocide? Good idea, I see nothing at all problematic with that. Flawless logic; A+.

And then there’s having a whole chapter dedicated to a guru con artist trying to rape Mark’s daughter. What even the hell; I can’t even find words to describe my bafflement at the point of this shit. Now, you might think that this story, though unpleasant, is necessary due to the plot consequences: Moonchild kills the attempted rapist, thus breaking her oath never to do permanent harm and rendering Mark incapable of transforming into her any more. That sounds like it could end up being significant, right? Spoiler from the future: fucking wrong! Mark simply uses Cosmic Traveler’s shapeshifting ability to continue posing as Moonchild for the remainder of her time as president of Vietnam; it never ends up mattering at all, not even one single bit. There is seriously no point to this. Please stop writing stuff like it (I said in vain, already knowing a certain occurrence from the next book).

The only thing, the ONLY thing preventing me from giving this book a perfunctory “1″ and then tossing it into a burning dumpster is the midpoint appearance of Croyd the Sleeper, still the best character in the Wild Cards universe. “Feeding Frenzy”, where he and Black Shadow team up to break out of jail and go on a Shark hunt that delivers deadly justice to those who have evaded it for too long, is the definite highpoint of the book; providing some much needed catharsis. It’s a fun tale of good guys kicking ass and bad guys getting what they’ve got coming to them, and all without any drawn-out attempted rape sequences.

Thanks to “Feeding Frenzy”, Marked Cards is not complete and utter garbage. It is only mostly garbage. Still: Puppetman as a protagonist? What the fuck were they thinking?

Final Rating 2/5

Wild Cards #13: Card Sharks

Pick a hand, and pick a card, any card’ll do; look at the card, then look back up at the shark smiling back at you. Let’s go for a swim with Card Sharks, edited by George R.R. Martin

Synopsis:

Someone is trying to kill all the jokers – nothing less than genocide will do. For decades they have been the secret shadow players on the global scene, the puppet masters hidden behind the curtains, patient, cunning, moving inch by inch toward their terrible dream – a world “cleansed” of the wild card disease and its victims. And now their time is almost come…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Card Sharks is the first in a trilogy focusing on the Card Sharks conspiracy as villains. Their existence was already hinted at, with J. Robert Belew telling Captain Trips about how he had come to believe in the existence of an anti-Wild Card conspiracy, but this book is the first one to really lay it all out by chronicling a number of historic events they were involved in.

This creates a bit of a narrative problem, however: a lot of the individual stories fall flat because they feature characters we’ve never heard about before and don’t care about. Sure, there’s the occasional familiar name like Dr. Finn, who is an active player in the current present-day world; but as for the rest of them, we pretty much know going in that they have no relevance to the contemporary story lines. In most cases, we aren’t even allowed to hope that they might return as protagonists in the present, since even before reading their story we’re told by the framing story that they’re by now deceased.

Of the stories in the collection, the best is definitely “A Wind from Khorasan: The Narrative of J. Robert Belew”. It fleshes out the Mechanist’s backstory, which was alluded to in the previous novel; and also provides additional insight into the character of Popinjay, revealing how he acquires his strong dislike of firearms. Of the stories that feature characters being introduced in this book for the first time, I’d say the best is “The Lamia’s Tale”, detailing the past of Joan van Renssaeler. She’s still alive in the present, and is related to other significant characters active in the present, so she does actually feel like she could play a meaningful role in future developments of the story.

And hey, there’s also a story featuring Croyd the Sleeper. Those are always good.

I think Card Sharks manages to rise above its problems and come off as a decent book in the end, but it’s definitely a bumpy start to the latest Wild Cards trilogy. Will the subsequent novels be an improvement? Unfortunately, the final two words of this book give a dire forewarning as to what is to come: “Senator Hartmann”. Shudder…

Final Rating 3/5

The Shewstone

Sum by sum, the characters are given, a charge of how the rule of God should pass to Earth from Heaven. Tin camera, the language Michael sends – it is too alien and too complex to comprehend. One thing is, yet one can yet be known: the hand of God is on the hand that shall receive the stone. …That has to be the most obscure musical reference I’ve ever made in one of these openings. I couldn’t even find the lyrics listen online anywhere; I had to listen and try to write them down by ear. I kind of doubt I did it correctly, since “tin camera” doesn’t make much sense in that context. Maybe it’s supposed to be “thinker am-er a”? That’s pretty bad grammar; how about “tinker, amor, huh”? Or “thank Amon Ra”? A really mangled pronunciation of “Thelema”? In context, it would really make the most sense for it to be some variation on “Enochian”, “Angelical”, or “Langue Vert”, but I can’t hear it as anything but “tin camera”… If I keep at this much longer, I’m going to spend more time on it than I did reading the book itself, so just give “The Scryer and the Shewstone” by Peter Ulrich a listen yourself and make up your own mind. In the meantime, let’s scry into The Shewstone, by Jane Fletcher.

Synopsis:

In the port city of Fortaine, two young girls acquire new families.

Four-year-old Eawynn, the unwanted illegitimate daughter of an ambitious noble, is dumped in the temple. When she is old enough, she will be initiated into its sisterhood of priestesses. Meanwhile Matt, the street urchin, earns a crime lord’s admiration, so much so he adopts her as his daughter and heir to his underworld clan.

Nearly two decades later, their paths cross when Eawynn is appointed custodian of the Shew stone, the mystical orb of prophecy. Unfortunately for her, Matt is on a mission to steal it.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Shewstone: a mystical orb of great magical potency, capable of providing prophecies about the future. …Allegedly. Actually, the priestesses who charge exorbitant sums for petitioners to seek the Shewstone’s wisdom just make up whatever they expect the client wants to hear. It’s basically just a scam, so professional thief Matt experiences no pangs of conscience whatsoever when she’s hired to steal it from the temple. But Eawynn, the sister in charge of looking after the stone, doesn’t see it that way; when Matt steals it, Eawynn pursues her in the hope of getting it back. When Matt’s clients betray her, however, the two women end up having to team up to get even and reclaim the prize – which may in fact have some actual magical properties after all.

Matt and Eawynn are both excellent protagonists, and their contrasting skills and personalties make them interesting foils whose interactions never fail to be interesting. It also managed to deliver on the action and excitement: what with the temple’s usage of the Shewstone being a scam, it wasn’t initially clear what the actual magic level of the setting was, so I was both surprised and impressed by the demon rampage at the climax. And finally, the ending managed to hit all the right notes and made me walk away with a smile. That’s exactly what I want when I pick up a book like this.

The Shewstone was a lovely read, and I heartily recommend it.

Final Rating: 4/5

Prospero’s War #1: Dirty Magic

Okay, so for the opening lyric bit of this review, .I was planning to segue “Dance Magic” into a Dirty Dancing reference; but I couldn’t find a good way to make it work. You can’t win them all. Let’s brew up some Dirty Magic, by Jaye Wells.

Synopsis:

The last thing patrol cop Kate Prospero expected to find on her nightly rounds was a werewolf covered in the blood of his latest victim. But then, she also didn’t expect that shooting him would land her in the crosshairs of a Magic Enforcement Agency task force, who wants to know why she killed their lead snitch.

The more Prospero learns about the dangerous new potion the MEA is investigating, the more she’s convinced that earning a spot on their task force is the career break she’s been wanting. But getting the assignment proves much easier than solving the case. Especially once the investigation reveals their lead suspect is the man she walked away from ten years earlier—on the same day she swore she’d never use dirty magic again.

Kate Prospero’s about to learn the hard way that crossing a wizard will always get you burned, and that when it comes to magic, you should be never say never.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

In this urban fantasy world, magic potions are the illegal street drug of choice. Kate Prospero, formerly a brewer of illegal potions, turned her life round after the death of her mother and now works for the police. The latest illegal potion to hit the streets is a bad one: it transforms the users into flesh-hungry werewolves. Evidence suggests that some of Kate’s old criminal accomplices might be involved in the production and distribution of the potion, and she joins the special task force assembled to bring them down.

There are really two main plot threads in Dirty Magic. The first is, of course, the police work Kate does as she tries to identify and arrest the culprit behind the werewolf potion. The second concerns Kate’s home life: she’s the parental guardian of her younger brother, and her past experiences with illegal magic have resulted in her becoming rather strict and overprotective; particularly when he wants to start developing his own magical talent.

Overall, it was a decent enough story; there wasn’t any major storytelling problems that jumped out at me. At the same time, I can’t really say that it got me all that excited, either. There wasn’t really a hook, something about the setting or characters to differentiate this series from all the many other urban fantasy books out there and make me want to continue reading more. It felt… rather generic. I often prefer a series which has apparent problems but also a really exciting or intriguing premise or plot to one which is just bland.

In the end, this book reminds me of an unseasoned baked potato. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it; but a man can’t live on potatoes alone.

Final Rating: 3/5

Book of Swords #11: The Last Book of Swords: Shieldbreaker’s Story

I shatter Swords and splinter spears; / None stands to Shieldbreaker. / My point’s the fount of orphans’ tears / My edge the widowmaker. Let’s sing the eleventh verse of the Song of Swords with The Last Book of Swords: Shieldbreaker’s Story, by Fred Saberhagen.

Synopsis:

Long ago, the gods forged Twelve Swords of Power and threw them on the gameboard of life for greedy mortals to scramble over. Too late, the gods learned that they had forged too well; the Swords could kill the gods themselves.

Now, ages later, the Swords are back in human hands, as powerful as ever. Vilkata the Dark King returns from exile seeking revenge on those who defeated him. His first goal is the vault in which is enemy Prince Mark has placed the remaining Swords; with these in hand, none can oppose his rule. Only one untested warrior stands in his way: fourteen-year-old Prince Stephen, with Shieldbreaker in hand.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

At last we have arrived at the final entry in the Book of Swords series. Actually, it feels like the end’s come a bit early: it feels just slightly wrong that there should be twelve Swords forged by Vulcan but only eleven books in the series. I’ve been including excerpts from the Song of Swords as the opening bits in these reviews, but the disparity in numbering means I wasn’t quite able to include the full thing; the omitted verse, as I’m sure you devout Book of Swords fans have noticed, is Doomgiver, which I selected because it was the first Sword to be destroyed.

Vilkata the Dark King, two years ago blasted out into orbit when Mark invoked the Emperor’s name against a demon he was riding, has at least returned for vengeance. Bearing the Mindsword and an army of demons he recruited from a prison on the moon, he launches a strike into the very heart of Tasavalta. (Fun fact I just recently learned: “Tasavalta” is the Finnish word for “Republic”. Which isn’t quite an appropriate name for a country run by a hereditary monarchy. Tasavalta also follows the Disney tradition of calling the reigning monarch “Princess” rather than “Queen” because princesses are good while queens are evil.) Vilkata plans to use Shieldbreaker to destroy all of the other divine Swords, leaving no weapon in the world capable of opposing him.

As the culmination of an epic eleven-book saga, Shieldbreaker’s Story bears the unenviable task of not only telling the story of a final battle between Mark and Vilkata, but also of wrapping up all the lingering plot threads that previous books have introduced but not yet resolved. Some of these threads are tied up neatly. Draffut was last seen having been reduced back a normal dog, but the Emperor promised to restore him; and indeed we learn he has done so, using a second Lake of Life concealed within his base on the moon. Yambu and Ben, who have long been seeking to reunite with Ariane, finally get to meet her once more. Baron Amintor, who vanished from the Ancient One’s service when he saw the wind was blowing against him, returns and is slain. And, of the twelve swords forged by Vulcan, all save Woundhealer, the most beneficent, have been destroyed.

That said, there’s also a lot which I don’t feel was handled satisfactorily. The final battle is handled extremely hastily and rather anticlimactically: in fact, we don’t even get to see the climax – we cut away, and are told later what happened. Then there’s the deaths. Some previously recurring characters – Jord, Mala, and Zoltan – are killed off, presumably to raise to stakes and elicit an emotional response; but it kind of fails because so little narrative weight is given to it. We never see Mark have to mourn the deaths of his parents or his nephew, and Marian isn’t even mentioned. …You do remember Marian, right? Mark’s sister, Zoltan’s mother? And speaking of forgotten characters: what about Ben’s wife and daughter, Barbara and Beth? He’s concerned about their safety because they were in the capital when Vilkata attacked – but we never see them, never hear what’s happened to them, and even Ben himself seems to forget they exist as soon as he meets Ariane. That seems kind of a big thing to forget.

So, what to say about the series overall? It excelled in some areas, particularly in the exploration of the Swords themselves: the unique powers, drawbacks, and odd quirks exhibited by the god-forged weapons. Each time two Sword-bearers clashed, it was a dramatic moment to see which Sword’s power would trump the other. On the other hand, the characterization wasn’t always done so well, with the female characters in particular being noticeably weak. The ends of the books also had an unfortunate tendency to be unsatisfying: ending on anticlimaxes, or with nothing actually accomplished or resolved, or in a confusing jumble of events where it wasn’t clear what happened, or glossing over events which should have been much more significant and impactful. The result is about medium: books which are enjoyable to read, but have too many flaws to be called truly exceptional. Really, I have to comment on the remarkable consistency of the series: despite focusing on many different characters in many different settings over a period of over thirty years, they managed to maintain the same level of quality; none of the books significantly better than the others, nor any significantly worse. In fact, I believe I have ended up giving all eleven of them the same final rating. Unlike certain other series like Wild Cards which fluctuate wildly in quality from volume to volume, when you pick up a Book of Swords, you know what you’re going to get.

And so we close the final cover on the Book of Swords. Now, time to go read Empire of the East and see what context it provides.

Final Rating: 3/5