‘Tis the season… for REVENGE! We return to the Wild Cards series one year after the Astronomer’s evil plan was foiled to see what retribution he’s been cooking up. He’s made a list, he’s checked it twice, and he doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice. Let’s go to town with Jokers Wild, edited by George R. R. Martin.
The streets of New York have erupted in celebration of Wild Card Day-the annual event held every September 15th to remember the dead and cherish the living. It is a day for fireworks and street fairs and parades, for political rallies and memorial banquets, for drinking and fighting in the alleys. With each passing year, the festivities become larger and more fevered. And this year-1986, the fortieth anniversary-promises to be the biggest and best Wild Card Day ever. The media and tourists have discovered the celebration, and taverns and restaurants expect record-setting business.
But lurking in the background is a twisted genius who cares nothing for fun and festivity. The Astronomer has only one concern: destruction.
The heroes might have foiled the Astronomer’s plans for TIAMAT; but with the Astronomer himself getting away, it was inevitable that he would return with a plan for vengeance. Now, the time for his roaring rampage of revenge has come, as he plots a day of death and destruction that will see the massacre of every Ace who opposed him at the Cloisters as well as every former underling who failed him, and will culminate in him stealing Dr. Tachyon’s spaceship and setting out to bring his malice to the stars. It’s quickly made clear that the stakes are high and anyone can die, as Howler and Kid Dinosaur are gruesomely killed to establish that the Astronomer means business.
Of course, with the main villain being the Astronomer, that means we have to spend a lot of time with his nemesis Fortunato playing the hero. I don’t like Fortunato. Happily, this book isn’t afraid to call him out for being an asshole; notably, one of the first scenes is Veronica pointing out that he’s not nearly as good of a guy as he thinks he is. Having the narrative acknowledge his hypocrisy makes it a lot more bearable than when it was just presenting him as a straight-up hero opposing the Astronomer and the Swarm Mother.
The novel also features a couple of supporting storylines which tie into the Astronomer’s vengeance; like Hiram turning the Wild Card Day party at his restaurant into a safe haven for Aces being targeted, and Roulette being sent on a mission to assassinate Tachyon but having second thoughts as the night goes on. The most major secondary storyline is Wraith stealing Kien’s books, resulting in a massive manhunt by his minions seeking to recover them. It only occasionally intersects the Astronomer storyline, and has much lower stakes since it’s only Wraith at risk, but the story is nonetheless entertaining. It keeps up a frenetic pace, multiple different groups of goons chasing rumors about the books across the city and making some amusing mistakes as they accidentally run afoul of Yeoman, Dr. Tachyon, and Sewer Jack along the way. It’s here’s where Popinjay makes his first good showing, handling first Bludgeon and then Wyrm’s goon squad with charming wit and panache; then outsmarting Loophole Latham for an encore. Billy Ray, who is not yet identified by his Ace name of Carnifex, also gets to strut his stuff for the first time as he battles the Immaculate Egrets for custody of Wraith. Though he’s kind of a tool and ends up working for the villains as often as not, I’ve actually come to like him a lot because of the sheer joyful glee he exhibits when charging into combat. Whenever Carnifex comes onto the scene, you know it’s only a matter of time until the fists start flying.
Which is not say to that all of the supporting plot lines entirely work. There are also a couple of storylines which feel out of place: Sewer Jack looking for his niece Cordelia, and Rosemary and Bagabond doing some boring Mafia-related stuff. Now, don’t get me wrong, normally a super-powered mob war would be a potentially very interesting storyline – I loved the hell out of Baccano! – but it pales in comparison to the threat posed by the Astronomer. He’s planning a huge massacre of superheroes which will culminate in stealing a spaceship and departing the planet, and you expect me to care what these Gambione suits are doing? Not to mention, I don’t really like Rosemary. Is she supposed to be a sympathetic character? Because she’s a bigger Judas than Golden Boy, working tirelessly to subvert the judicial process and let Gambione thugs get away with their crimes. Or, I guess, technically she doesn’t start doing that until after the end of this book, since this story is about her reconciling with the Mafia and starting to work with them again; this might be a case of my knowledge of later books tainting my impression of previous ones. I’m pretty sure I thought she was boring even during my first read-through, though; I viewed her as a peripheral character to Bagabond since her whole secret-Mafia-princess thing didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Wild Card. Personally, I care less about her than Demise: he may be a remorseless murderer, but at least he’s up-front and honest about his villainy; plus, he’s about a thousand times more interesting.
This book is where Demise comes into his own as a fully realized character. When previously introduced, he planted the seeds of interest with his unusual backstory and unique Ace powers, but his role in the story was ultimately just to be one of a number of lackeys serving the Astronomer. Now that he has his own story about trying to escape service to the Astronomer and make himself a place in the Shadow Fists, he is finally a protagonist rather than a supporting character. And who is it who kills the Astronomer in the end? Not Fortunato; he overcame the Astronomer in their mid-air duel, only to toss him into the river instead of finishing him off. Not Roulette; she had a gun trained on him but just broke his glasses and let him crawl away. Not Tachyon; he just whined about Fortunato not doing it while not doing anything himself. If it had been left to those bumbling idiots, the Astronomer would have succeeded in turning insubstantial and slipping away. He would have regained his power and become a threat again and doubtless unleashed some new wave of terror on the world. But lucky for our ineffectual heroes, they had a villain around to do their dirty work for them. Demise, ladies and gentlemen: he might not be the nicest guy, but damned if he doesn’t get shit done. That’s right, in the end, it’s Demise who defeats the arc villain of the first three books. I think that buys him enough good karma to forgive the occasional random murder, don’t you?
The book ends on a strong positive note. The Great and Powerful Turtle inspirationally rises again after apparently perishing in the river; Hiram gives Bludgeon a well-deserved ass-kicking; Fortunato departs New York and the book series for the foreseeable future; Sewer Jack has reunited with Cordelia courtesy of Popinjay; Bagabond has cleaned herself up and gotten a boyfriend; and Rosemary has reclaimed her position as Mafia princess and is determined to use that power for good – and not, say, to totally fuck up the aforementioned mentioned happy ending for Bagabond, who would find it horribly traumatic to be betrayed by the person she considers her best friend and indeed savior… but that, as they say, is a story for another time. Taken on its own, as a conclusion to the first trilogy of Wild Cards novels, Jokers Wild succeeds by every measure.
Final Rating: 5/5