Place your bets, folks: we’re returning to the Wild Cards series, and the deck is stacked with Aces. Let’s shuffle up Aces Abroad, edited by George R. R. Martin.
What would our world be like if superhuman heroes and villains had been real flesh-and-blood men and women who lived through the 20th century’s most turbulent history? In Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad, a fact-finding mission seeks the truth about how Wild Cards are treated in other nations. From the jungles of Haiti to the Great Wall of China and behind the Iron Curtain, the Wild Cards team investigates the fate of their fellow Aces and Jokers everywhere.
With the Astronomer, overarching villain of the first three novels, finally having been dispatched, Aces Abroad is burdened with the responsibility of setting up new arc villains for the coming storylines. Unfortunately, it gets so wrapped up in this that it forgets to have any actual substance of its own. In pretty much every aspect, Aces Abroad is burdened with serious problems.
First, there’s the premise. A high-profile group of Aces is going on a world tour to draw attention to Joker issues in the nations they visit. One would expect this to be an opportunity to see many different exotic locales and the differing responses they have had to the Wild Card issues. But everywhere the group goes is the same: Aces are valued for government work, Jokers are despised. The text might tell us that we’ve gone to Haiti or Mexico or the Middle East, but the scenes of Jokers being abused by government authority are interchangeable.
The world tour aspect of the story gives rise to another problem: there’s no narrative cohesion. With stories set in Jokertown, it’s possible to build up a big cast of recurring characters who can constantly cross paths with each other, teaming up and getting into feuds and generally interacting with one another. With the world tour, we go to a country, meet a bunch of new characters, and then leave that country never to see them again. It’s hard to get invested in a new character who lives in Haiti when you know every other character in the series is heading right back to New York as soon as this book ends.
But, hey, the Messenger in Black is pretty cool. He’s not likely to be heading to New York any time soon, but I’m sure it won’t take long for the series to return to the new Aztec nation and feature him in another story. Certainly less than, say, sixteen entire books (just to pick a number purely at random). I will be waiting with bated breath for his introduction to the roster of Wild Cards characters to pay dividends.
Now, let’s get down to the matter of villains. Because each stop in a new country is effectively a separate story, each has to have its own villain. That in itself is not a problem – not every villain has to be super-compelling or super-memorable, just so long as they drive the story along. The Hero Twins’ plot works just fine even though there’s not a single named villain, since the nature of their arc makes generic oppressive government stormtroopers suitable as antagonists. But, here’s the problem: since the book is obsessed with establishing a new major multi-arc villain to replace the Astronomer, it doesn’t want to actually kill any of these new villains – in fact, it wants them to end their stories ascendant, so they can pose a recurring threat to the protagonists in the future. And that would be fine – for one villain. But if every single story introduces a new villain, and each story ends with the villain escaping justice and growing in power… well, then it doesn’t seem that the heroes actually accomplished anything, now does it?
Seriously, let’s look at the villains in this book. Not counting generic oppressive government stormtroopers, the book introduces three new villains in Nur al-Allah, Ti Malice, and Mack the Knife; plus, it features appearances by two recurring ones in Puppetman and Kien. And what resolution or closure do we reach? Kien suffers defeat in the sense that this particular plot of his was foiled; but since he was acting by proxy while personally remaining safely back in New York, there was never any chance of him actually getting taking down. Puppetman succeeds in gaining many new powerful and influential puppets; plus, he uses his mind control to “seduce” (rape) the sister of a woman he previously murdered. That, by the way, was a very gross plotline I could have done without reading, thank you very much. Mack the Knife gets recruited by Puppetman and given a new position as his personal assassin. Ti Malice escapes the squalid hell-hole he was hiding in and gets carried to New York. Do you call that resolution? Do you call that closure? Because I sure don’t. The only one the heroes actually manage to beat is the Nur al-Allah.
Well, at least the Nur was taken care of. I mean, technically Puppetman felt that he hadn’t died yet as they ran away, but come on: Sayyid was crushed to mush by Hiram, and the Nur got a knife in the throat. They’ve been defeated; dead, done, over with. You introduce a new recurring villain by making him look strong – hence the problem of all the villains in this book who don’t get beaten – not by slitting his throat. And if the Nur somehow managed to survive his neck-hacking, that would mean that not a single villain from this book is defeated; that nothing whatsoever was accomplished and the entire thing was nothing but a huge waste of time. Really, the worst possible thing for the Wild Cards series to do would be to completely forget about events going on in the Middle East, ignore everything happening there for the longest time, and then suddenly out of nowhere bring the Nur back and act as if he’d never gone anywhere and had totally been active and villainous the entire time, just slightly off-screen and without any of the other characters doing anything about it. That would just be incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that, because the Nur is dead and will never be seen again.
NEVER. SEEN. AGAIN.
Ah, but when listing the villains of this novel, I omitted one. (Okay, two; but I’m choosing to ignore the story with Murga-muggai because it’s so weird that doesn’t even feel like a proper Wild Cards story. Did you know that Neil Gaiman originally pitched Dream from The Sandman as a Wild Cards character but George R. R. Martin turned him down? It seems someone decided that whoops, that was a mistake; but it’s too late to get Gaiman now, so let’s just poorly imitate him). I left this one character out because he has not, as yet, been revealed to be a villain; indeed, one could argue that he has not yet technically become a villain at this point in the story. Nevertheless, since this is the book which introduces him, no review could be complete without bringing him up. So, here goes:
Blaise Andrieux. What a little shit.
Seriously. I don’t think we’re supposed to hate him at this point; if anything, we’re supposed to go all misty-eyed at Dr. Tachyon discovering he has a grandson and having an emotional reunion with the family on Earth he never knew he had. But I do hate Blaise; hated him from his very first appearance. Since when has any series ever introducing a previously-unknown relative of one of the main characters, a precocious child possessed of amazing gifts, ever turned out to be a good thing? I mean, remember all the hate Dawn got from fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? And she, unlike Blaise Andrieux, had the advantage of not being an annoying little shit. By season seven, she had actually become something approaching likeable; whereas Blaise just becomes more grating and annoying each time he appears. Personally, for some reason, whenever I try to picture Blaise in my mind, I always see him looking exactly like Wesley Crusher.
Now, I am very-spoiler averse. I like to go into series without any foreknowledge of where they might go. But it did not take very many Blaise stories at all before I abandoned my principles and hopped on to the Wild Cards wiki, as I could not bear to keep reading about him and had decided to skip every chapter where he was mentioned unless reassured that he ended up meeting an appropriately gruesome fate. He was seriously that annoying.
But enough about the myriad things in this book which I hated. Did it have any redeeming values, any saving graces? Was there any gold among the dross, any pearls before the swine? Well, yes; I must confess that it was not entirely without merit. The best stories were, unsurprisingly, those which were actually written to work as stand-alone stories rather than to serve as launching pads for future villains. In particular, my favorite was “Warts and All”, which focuses on Troll getting into trouble when Fantasy tries to trick him into doing a dirty job for her through a combination of seduction and bald-faced lies. It’s fast-paced, funny, witty, has an exciting fight scene, ends satisfactorily, and is just an all-around fine Wild Cards story. “The Teardrop of India” also has much to recommend it; it is perhaps not quite up to the standards of “Warts and All”, but is more important to the storyline in that it introduces Jayewardene and has Dr. Tachyon cure the shapeshifter mode-lock of Jeremiah Strauss, the former Projectionist and future Mr. Nobody. It’s also one of the few Wild Cards stories to feature the criminally underutilized Radha, the Ace known as Flying Elephant Girl. “Legends”, about the secret history of Aces in the KGB and GRU, is also a pretty good read.
So, yeah, Aces Abroad wasn’t all bad. Just mostly bad. I can recommend a few specific stories from the book, but not the book as a whole.
Final Rating: 2/5