The Bloodhound Files #6: Undead To The World

Strange things did happen here, no stranger would it be; if we met at midnight in the hanging tree. Let’s tie a noose for Undead to the World, by D. D. Barant.

Synopsis:

Jace’s return to Kansas is an instant reminder that there really is no place like home. The tavern is still brimming with losers, practical jokers, and motorcycle chicks. Even the town’s only Goth is still wearing eyeliner. But just as Jace is about to click her heels and hightail out of there, she’s roped into a brand-new case. Somebody is possessed. And the bodies are piling up…

They call him the Gallowsman. According to legend, he was sentenced to hang—though his crimes still have not been specified. When he was strung up to die, his spirit stuck around waiting for people to hang themselves…so he could steal their bodies. Now, with the undead rising up and going on a rampage, Jace must put her own neck on the line. Can she get the Gallowsman to give up the ghost?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With this book, The Bloodhound Files comes to its incredible, climactic conclusion. That can only mean one thing: an epic final battle between Jace and Ahaseurus for the fate of Thropirelem! Final appearances by all the secondary cast members! And above all else, a satisfying conclusion to the overarching story of the past five novels. …Right?

Nope.

For one thing, the fight doesn’t take place on Thropirelem. I mean, why should it, when it’s only been the major setting for the past five novels? For another thing, the fight isn’t against Ahaseurus. I mean, why should it be, when he’s only been the overarching villain of the entire series? Furthermore, hardly any of the characters we’ve met before appear in this novel. I mean, why should they, when it’s only the final chance for them to make one last appearance and resolve any lingering plot threads? And finally, it’s in no way epic, climactic, or even particularly good. I mean, why should it be, when the series can end with a lazy whimper instead of a resounding bang?

Now, to be clear: I don’t have any particular problem with the basic premise the novel. Ahaseurus captures Jace and transports her to a village in another world custom-built to torment her, and she has to figure it out and escape? Fine. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with the Gallowsman as an antagonist. But for the final book of the series? The story that should be a grand, epic culmination of all that has come before? No. It doesn’t work. Because the whole series has been building up to a confrontation between Jace and Ahaseurus. He’s her archnemesis, a serial killer obsessed with murdering versions of her from alternate universes, the one who originally brought her from Earth to Thropirelem. You can’t just kill him off at the beginning of the book, offscreen, and have the final battle be against this Gallowsman guy who has never appeared or even been mentioned before.

Another problem is that, for a book meant to be the capstone to the Bloodhound Files series, barely any of the characters from the series actually appear in it. It’s not even set in Thropirelem; just some nameless alternate world we’ve never seen before, and most characters are only represented by their alternate world counterparts. Hoping to see characters like Gretchen and Xandra appear a final time and get a fitting sendoff? Too bad. And oh, don’t get me started on Azura. I loved her character when she was first introduced, was fascinated by her powers and her world. I was so looking forward to seeing her in action again. And what do I get instead? A few purely expository conversations with her over a video screen. What a waste of a great character.

And what a disappointing end to an enjoyable series.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Bloodhound Files #5: Back From The Undead

The tricky bit is coming back from the dead. If you can manage that, coming back from the undead should be easy by comparison. Let’s return to Back From the Undead, by D. D. Barant.

Synopsis:

Another work day, another case for the Bloodhound Files. But this time, Jace is truly stumped: How is she, a mere human, supposed to penetrate the dark heart of a child-trafficking ring of pire orphans—one that turns out to be part of a blood-farm operation, in the crime-ridden border city of Vancouver, British Columbia?

Jace is in over her head. But with the help of her former lover, Tanaka—whose family is one of the last samurai clans left in Japan—she stands a chance at seeking justice for the condemned children… Until the Yakuza tries to put an end to Jace’s investigation. Jace risks more than death—this time, it’s the fate of her very soul that’s in danger . . .

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Well, that was certainly a book.

There’s a whole lot of stuff going on in Back From the Undead. There’s the plight of orphaned vampire children, unable to age without the magical bond to their parents, who are being abducted for some unknown but doubtless nefarious purpose. There’s a yakuza-run blood-farm where humans are kept as cattle to feed their vampire owners’ thirst. There’s a villainous plan to create an artificial heaven and allow evil souls to escape to it from hell, for a price. There’s an Elder God stomping around like Godzilla, and another working more subtly behind the scenes. Jace is forced into a reluctant team-up with Aristotle Stoker, the serial killer she was brought to Thropirelem to catch; and her superior Cassius has gone missing while pursuing the evil sorcerer Ahaseurus and is trying to psychically contact her in her sleep through recurring nightmares; and Isamu and Tanaka from the first book have returned to seek revenge and redemption, respectively; and Jace is running out of bullets for her gun and having trouble making more due to the insidious effects of the planet-wide anti-gun spell.

That’s a lot of different threads to try and tie together, and the book doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. Some of the plotlines just come off as completely superfluous, random happenstance with no actual connection to anything else going on; and others never receive any resolution – I mean, the thing with Cassius is obviously a cliffhanger to lead into the final book, but a whole lot of time was spent on the issue with the bullets and it never ended up going anywhere.

This is also the first book of the series where Jace’s profiling skills don’t tie into the plot. Given that the whole reason she was brought to Thropirelem was that they needed someone capable of understanding the minds of mentally ill killers, the previous books in the series have all gone to great lengths to come up with ways of tying that into their plots – the first three had villains who were actually deranged or sociopaths, and the fourth had a character faking mental illness as part of a plan. Here, though… despite all the HPLC being thrown around, and the characters gazing upon the soul-flaying visages of two different Elder Gods, everybody makes their SAN checks and Jace’s defining skill set goes unutilized.

In any event, only one book remains in The Bloodhound Files. This penultimate adventure was only moderately good, but there’s still a chance for the grand finale to deliver a climactic and satisfying conclusion.

Final Rating: 3/5

Women of the Otherworld #12: Spell Bound

The women of the Otherworld return again, so come and join them at the forbidden feast. At this banquet of death and decadence that Gilles de Rais has prepared, you are welcome to eat your fill and be sated. Let’s unlock Spell Bound, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Savannah Levine is all grown up. As a witch endowed with an array of spells, she is also a force to be reckoned with. As a paranormal investigator she is finally coming into her own. But her last case tore a family apart, and Savannah swore she’d give up her powers to fix the mess she helped create. Someone–or something–must have been listening. Powerless and on the run from witch-hunting assassins, Savannah stumbles upon a gathering storm that threatens the very existence of the Otherworld. The danger is real, and Savannah must somehow join forces with old friends like Elena, Clay, Paige, Lucas, Jaime, and Hope to face their world’s greatest threat–and one that just might come from within.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With the Women of the Otherworld series approaching a climactic conclusion, details about the mysterious conspiracy which has been recruiting past villains together for one final world-shaking throw-down with the heroes are starting to emerge. It seems they are an organization of supernaturals tired of hiding in the shadows who want to enslave humanity and take over the world. (Say it with me now, M. Bison style: Of course!). Their leadership in particular are shooting for an even loftier goal; they’re immortality-seekers under the leadership of a man who has gone by man names but claims to be Gilles de Rais.

Giles, as he currently calls himself, is noted for his exceptional charisma and oratory prowess, capable of talking around a great deal of average supernaturals who would normally be neutral into supporting his plan to break the masquerade. The book doesn’t include the actual text of his speech, but I’d like to imagine it went something along the lines of this:

“And now once again we raise the blood-soaked flag of salvation! You who are abandoned, gather here! I shall lead you! I shall rule you! Resentment and rage of we the oppressed shall reach up unto the lofty throne of God himself! God in Heaven! With words of condemnation, I praise your holy name! Oh, arrogant God! Oh, cruel God! We shall pull you down from your throne!”
– Caster Bluebeard (Gilles de Rais), Fate/Zero, “The Forbidden Feast”

Hey, speaking of characters with names similar to other characters from anime series I like, you know who gets mentioned in this book? Zoe Takano, naturally. Apparently, Savannah thinks she’s “fun”. Yes, I sure would love to read a fun story about that fun vampire lady Zoe Takano. But instead, this book’s cameo of a character introduced in Personal Demon comes in the form of a scene with Jaz.

Jaz, if you recall, is Jasper Haig, aka that asshole shapeshifter who was one of the worst Women of the Otherworld villains. I jokingly wished in my last review of a Women of the Otherworld book that Jaz would die offscreen by slipping in the shower. Apparently, my prayer was heard – but by a god with bad aim. For you see, it was not Jaz who perished in this manner, but one of the witch-hunters. No, Jaz gets a full scene to himself, where he acts all smarmy and basically announces that he’s got an escape plan in place, and to top it all off, he nearly aborts Hope’s unborn child. Afterwards, all the protagonists are in agreement that they should just give this guy’s skull some lead-assisted ventilation holes, Benicio is still confident that he’s got Jaz right where he wants him and that everything is under control.

You know what? You win, Jaz. Benicio is now more annoying to me than you are. I now hope that Jaz does escape, and in such a manner as to kill Benicio in the process. Benicio’s behavior regarding keeping Jaz alive as a test subject has gone past ignorance, past recklessness, past genre-blindness, into what can only be termed “calling down the thunder”. By this point, Benicio is, metaphorically speaking, standing atop the head of a statue of Zeus and pissing down the thunder-god’s face while lifting a metal rod over his head towards the violent stormclouds above and shouting at the top of his lungs: “Gimme your best shot, pussy! C’mon, I dare ya! I double-dog dare ya, muthafucka!” Once a character has reached that level of stupidity, the only possible satisfactory conclusion is a lightning bolt of divine retribution. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Non-metaphorically speaking, I’d be perfectly happy if Jaz just bashed him over the head with something weighty; at least, so long as all the other characters reacted not with grief but with knowing nods and statements of “Saw that coming.” and “I told him this was bound to happen, but did he listen?”

Final Rating: 3/5

Will Save The Galaxy For Food

Times are tough, and nowadays even heroes of the universe can find themselves sitting on the street corner asking for a little spare change. Let’s toss some coins into the cap of Will Save the Galaxy For Food, by Yahtzee Croshaw.

Synopsis:

A not-quite epic science fiction adventure about a down-on-his luck galactic pilot caught in a cross-galaxy struggle for survival! Space travel just isn’t what it used to be. With the invention of Quantum Teleportation, space heroes aren’t needed anymore. When one particularly unlucky ex-adventurer masquerades as famous pilot and hate figure Jacques McKeown, he’s sucked into an ever-deepening corporate and political intrigue. Between space pirates, adorable deadly creatures, and a missing fortune in royalties, saving the universe was never this difficult!

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Will Save the Galaxy For Food is the third novel by Internet-famous video game reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation. I’m now sure I have a lot to say about this one, because it is in many ways very similar to hit previous two books. Yes, the setting this time is sci-fi rather than fantasy or modern apocalypse, but the main themes are largely the same: commentary on the nature of heroism and what it means to be an adult, delivered through the medium of humorous satire which nonetheless manages to have genuine drama and poignant emotional moments. Not that this is a bad thing, mind; I enjoyed Yahtzee’s previous books, and I enjoy this one as well. It just means I don’t have any real new, fresh, unique insights about it.

I guess I can talk about the characters. The nameless protagonist and Warden form your perfect odd-couple buddy-cop duo: the reckless loose-cannon rogue and the rigid, uptight control freak. I also eventually came to like Jemima, sympathizing with her frustration at everyone treating her like a quest object to be lugged around and handed over at the end of the mission. The only character I never warmed to was Danny, because he had no character development. He remaining a one-dimensional caricature from start to finish, doing nothing but serving as a millstone to the other characters and learning nothing at all. And his three jokes – he is embarrassed by his father, has a crush on Jemima which he can’t spit out, and thinks everything happening is a fun adventure rather than a serious life-or-death situation – were funny for about half a scene each and then got real old real fast. Honestly, I would have been perfectly happy to see him get eaten by Zoobs. Yeah, it wouldn’t fit the tone of the book, but it sure would’ve been satisfying.

…Huh. Ended up being kind of a short review; but I guess if you’re already a fan of Yahtzee, you don’t really need by recommendation to go out and read his latest book.

Final Rating: 4/5

Not Your Sidekick #1: Not Your Sidekick

With you, I wanna kick it; ‘cause you turn up my spirit; so let’s take the script and flip it: let’s flip up Not Your Sidekick, by C. B. Lee.

Synopsis:

Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Not Your Sidekick presents an interesting setting: a soft post-apocalypse world where people try to continue their lives as usual in the wake of a disastrous stellar event which both devastated much of the world and give rise to the first superhumans. Jess, born to superpowered parents and with a superpowered older sister, always expected to become a hero herself; but when she fails to develop powers, she instead finds herself working as an intern for the local supervillains. Quite a fine premise.

I do have to say, I found most of the book’s twists a bit too easy to guess. I mean, I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be super-obvious that “M” is actually Abby – the synopsis even calls attention to it. But I figured out pretty much everything else in advance of the reveals as well: that Abby was the daughter of Master Mischief and Mistress Mischief and had inherited both of her parents’ powers, that her parents had been imprisoned by the secretly evil and dystopian government, that the superhero/supervillain fights were actually a bread-and-circuses act put on to entertain and distract the public, that Jess actually did have a superpower which she was subconsciously using to find things, and that Bells was Chameleon. Really, I should not have been able to guess all that, but the hints were all so obvious that they stuck out like sore thumbs. Maybe it’s because the book is for younger readers, who need things spelled out for them a bit more.

Then there’s the ending; or should I say, non-ending? Because a heckuva lot of plotlines seem to have been left unresolved. For instance: Cordelia and Captain Orion are still at large. Abby hasn’t gotten her superpowers back. Jess never got around to asking her parents why they didn’t expect her to have superpowers. Master Mischief is still locked away in some hellhole of a prison somewhere, but Mistress Mischief seems content spending her time baking cookies rather than, say, demanding Jess use her power to determine where he is so they can go rescue him right this very instant. And with Mr. Mischief still gone and Abby unable to use the suit without her powers, there’s nothing to stop Gregory Stone from taking over the company. But whatever, that’s standard sequel-hook stuff. Now, it is quite a few more sequel-hooks than I’m comfortable with: generally, the first book ends on a high note and it’s not until the second that the Empire strikes back, but the protagonists really did kind of fail miserably in every single regard here. Even in a continuity-heavy series, I kind of expect each book to have its own self-contained plot arc and climax; for at least something to be accomplished. Here it seems that each and every plot thread was left dangling, with not a single resolution to be found; like it’s half of a book instead of a whole first book. But okay, okay, I can deal. Except for one little thing…

So, Captain Orion’s whole plan was to get the backdoor codes for the MonoRobots so she could activate their defense programs and turn them all into state-controlled assassins capable of eliminating all enemies of the government and solidifying their dystopian authoritarian regime. And in the end, she said that she’d gotten the codes, and got away clean without the heroes being able to do anything to stop her or her plan. Um… that strikes me not so much of a cliffhanger, as a “game over”. I mean, the villain won. She got what she needs to start Judgement Day. I don’t see how you come back from that.

I guess the only ray of hope the heroes might have is how ludicrously incompetent these authoritarian dystopias tend to be. For instance: Chameleon says he’s fine despite being branded a villain because the Hero League doesn’t know his real identity. Um, he did have a DED, right? One of those devices which are universally monitored by the government and which require a citizen PIN to use? But even assuming he’s somehow in the clear – Jess and Abby’s parents both straight-up worked for the government through the Hero League and Villain Guild. I think they know where they live. But of course, this super-oppressive government, which is seeking to develop a way to target and kill its own citizens at any time for any reason, isn’t going to bother to do anything to stop the people who have discovered its nefarious plan. I mean, they’re clearly no threat: eliminating them would be overkill! Which makes you wonder why they even want a universally deployed net of robot assassins, if they don’t consider rebels to be significant enough to warrant even the less-draconian security measures already in place…

But despite the lack of resolution offered in this book, I, the eternal optimist, shall choose to put my trust in this series and believe that a satisfactory conclusion to all the dangling plot threads will forthcoming in future books. Thus, based on the merits of the story and characters of this story and not holding the non-ending against it, I give it a tentative thumbs-up.

Final Rating: 3/5

Wild Cards #7: Dead Man’s Hand

Dead men tell no tales, but they still occasionally play poker. Let’s play out Dead Man’s Hand, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Chrysalis, the glass-skinned queen of the Joker underworld, has been found brutally murdered in her popular restaurant, the Crystal Palace.

Now two men are out to find her killer – Jay Ackroyd, the Ace private detective who discovered her ruined body, and the vigilante arhcer known as The Yeoman, who has been framed for the crime.

Their quest leads them on a nightmare journey of madness, violence, passion and intrigue that will forever alter the fate of those who contracted the Wild Card virus.

Source: back of the book (Goodreads is in Spanish for some reason)

SPOILERS BELOW

Dead Man’s Hand is set concurrent with Ace in the Hole, and deals with events happening in New York at the same time. These events were briefly alluded to in that book, such as news arriving of Chrysalis’s murder or Popinjay delivering Puppetman’s jacket to Dr. Tachyon, but now we get the whole story.

The narrative alternates between the perspectives of Popinjay and Yeoman, and the two of them make an excellent contrasting pair. Yeoman is basically the Punisher of the Wild Cards universe: he doesn’t actually have any powers, but uses his military training to ruthlessly hunt down and murder criminals. Popinjay has a very potent Ace, but never kills and is strongly morally opposed to guns. As a result, while the two of them are working towards the same goal, they share the same kind of mutual distrust and friction as exists between, say, the Punisher and Batman. …Well, as would exist between the Punisher and Batman if they met and teamed up, instead of existing in the separate Marvel and DC universes. As exists between the Punisher and whoever the Punisher teams up with who has a strong code against killing. I’m sure there must have been someone at some point. Spider-Man? Daredevil? …Archie? I don’t know, comics aren’t my strong point. The point is, it works.

Approaching the case as they do from different angles, they arrive at different parts of the solution. Yeoman is the one to figure out the culprit truly responsible for Chrysalis’s murder, but it’s Popinjay who exposes and defeats the second major villain of this arc: Ti Malice. And wow, what a defeat. It is my favorite moment of the book, possibly my favorite villain defeat in the entire series, and probably one of the defining moments which made Popinjay one of my favorite Wild Cards protagonists. See, Yeoman is far from a bad character – I’d take him over Fortunato any day – but I ultimately find him a bit one-note. Popinjay, however, isn’t a cold, composed killing machine; he’s a damaged, cynical, sometimes slightly doofy but ultimately loveable gumshoe in the finest noir detective tradition. His foibles and quirks, even the somewhat pathetic ones like his recurrent bed-wetting nightmares, make him feel all the more human. Even when Yeoman gets into a bad situation, like being drugged and tied up at Quin the Eskimo’s, there’s no real sense of horror to it: I know he’s just going to the old James Bond thing of acting cool and collected in the face of torture and then manage to escape in some improbable manner and go right back to being a badass. It’s a given that once he’s recovered, he’s just going to march straight back to Quin’s and get his revenge, without the slightest fear or doubt at facing someone who previously bested him and rendered him powerless. Popinjay, on the other hand; when he’s pinned to the floor, Ti Malice ever-so-slowly crawling towards him like some hideous abomination straight from his nightmares, the suspense is through the roof. I feel his disgust, his terror, his horror. And when he manages to free his hands at the last moment and send Ti Malice straight to the hell where it belongs, I swell with cheer and exuberance. For Yeoman, beating Ti Malice would just be another tally on the scoreboard, nothing to write home about; but for Popinjay, it’s a character-defining moment of victory and an emotional triumph. Yeoman may not suffer nightmares like Popinjay does, but that means his character can never provide that height of cathartic bliss which comes from overcoming them.

Of course, it is only natural that Puppetman and Ti Malice should be defeated at the same time, as the two of them are fundamentally reflections of one another: Puppetman is a charismatic Ace while Ti Malice is a hideous Joker; Puppetman has delusions of nobility while Ti Malice revels in its basest instincts; Puppetman has global aspirations while Ti Malice only seeks to use those around it. But as opposite sides of the same coin, they are ultimately of the same nature: manipulators who use their powers to surround themselves with enslaved puppets. Both rose to power in Aces Abroad, and now both are receiving incredibly appropriate and well-written sendoffs. And, of course, both will be pointless brought back by future authors, thus tarnishing the otherwise great conclusions to their stories…

No, wait scratch that last bit. Obviously, having been eliminated in a clever way at the action climax of this story, Ti Malice is gone and will never be seen again.

Never. Seen. Again.

Final Rating: 4/5

Greywalker #3: Underground

What happens when the Greywalker series delves too deep, and too greedily? Let’s excavate Underground, by Kat Richardson.

Synopsis:

Harper Blaine was your average small-time P.I. until she died for two minutes. Now Harper is a Greywalker — walking the thin line between the living world and the paranormal realm. And she’s discovering that her new abilities are landing her all sorts of “strange” cases.

Pioneer Square’s homeless are turning up dead and mutilated, and zombies have been seen roaming the underground–the city buried beneath modern Seattle. When Harper’s friend Quinton believes he may be implicated in the deaths, he persuades her to investigate. But the killer is no mere murderer–it is a creature of ancient legend. And Harper must deal with both the living and the dead to stop the monster and its master …unless they stop her first.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I have a confession to make, dear readers: …well, actually, this time, I don’t. But I started my reviews of the previous two books in this series this way, and I am nothing if not a creature of habit.

Harper’s latest case has her investigating the deaths and disappearances of homeless people, some of which return as rotting zombies. After initially eying the vampire community, Harper determines that the perpetrator behind the crimes is a monster rather than a man: a supernatural predator which devours some victims whole and zombifies others to shrink-wrap their tasty souls into their flesh for later consumption. And that’s where the story kind of fell apart; because the more Harper learned about the monster, Sisiutl, the more jarring and awkward I found it.

The thing is, Sisiutl isn’t exactly a smooth fit into world thus far established by the Greywalker series. Yes, being urban fantasy means that it is open to plenty of supernatural elements, but not all types of fantasy play nice with one another. The previous supernatural creatures of Greywalker all fit a certain mood and atmosphere: ghosts, vampires, poltergeists, zombies. But then you casually mention that, oh yeah, there’s also a giant three-headed serpent from Native American mythology which serves an ogress who in turn serves the Native American gods; and oh yes, the Native American gods are apparently real, did I neglect to mention that before? One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong… It doesn’t help matters that, earlier in the book, the idea of werewolves is laughed off as completely implausible. I mean, come on: werewolves? That’s just ridiculous. No one ever heard of vampires existing alongside of werewolves. Whereas vampires and legendary Native American three-faced semi-divine serpent-monsters are of course famed for how seamlessly they fit together.

The book is also hampered by a couple of awkward subplots that never quite seemed to gel. There’s Harper and Will’s relationship really abruptly coming to an end due to his inability to deal with her connection to the supernatural, followed by her hooking up with Quinton almost immediately afterwards – giving me chilling flashbacks to the awkwardly-handled romance in Bitten by Kelley Armstrong; though at least Harper has the decency to wait until after the end of her first romance to begin the second, rather than finding some way to justify it to herself as “not really” cheating, so points for that I guess? Then there’s Quinton suddenly revealing that he’s being hunted by the NSA – and if you think vampires and Sisiutl don’t quite go together, imagine how well they mix with Bourne Identity-type political subterfuge – only for that to be just as quickly resolved with a random serendipitous corpse-swap at the end. Oh, and there’s a short bit about how Mara’s been treating Albert like Casper the Friendly Ghost when he’s more Vigo the Carpathian; but that doesn’t end up going anywhere, either.

Yeah, I’m just not feeling this one. Underground is an awkward story which should have staid buried.

Final Rating: 2/5

Wild Cards #6: Ace In The Hole

Everything’s coming up aces. Time to flip over Ace in the Hole, edited by George R.R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Since a strange alien virus created the superhuman beings known as Aces and Jokers 40 years ago, they have struggled for respect and recognition. Now, they are key players in a presidential convention torn by hatred and dissent as assassins stalk the halls of the convention and one of the candidates plans to use his secret Wild Card power for evil. A journey of intrigue and adventure written by five of science fiction’s most imaginative talents.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Atlanta, 1988: the Democratic National Convention. Puppetman, a psychopathic Ace with mind control powers, has maneuvered himself into position to win the nomination and then the presidency, which would allow him to extend his malignant influence over the entire world. But it seems he has finally overreached himself: he’s cracking under the pressure, his power beginning to slip from his control. This may be the only chance the heroes have to take him out, and they leap into action like a well-oiled machine – specifically, a machine which is not at all supposed to have any oil in it. They immediately embark on a campaign of bumbling missteps and self-sabotaging squabbles that would have the Three Stooges saying “Come on guys, get your act together”. Fortunately, it’s not just the heroes who want Puppetman taken down: Demise, the professional assassin with a look that can kill, is coming to town, and he has his eyes set on the evil puppet master.

Ace in the Hole is the Wild Cards series at its best: a suspenseful tale of superpowered individuals told against the backdrop of an alternate history closely parallel to our own but reflecting the impact of the Wild Card. Each of the protagonists gets their own plotline which shows off their strengths and personal flaws. Sara Morgenstein, having broken free of Puppetman’s strings, seeks to bring him down but finds herself in over her head. Golden Boy, still struggling with his reputation as the Judas Ace, once again tries to do the right thing and once again completely misreads the situation and goes about it all wrong. Dr. Tachyon, too wrapped up in demons from his past to pay attention to the present, repeatedly ignores warning signs and allows problems to grow bigger by failing to nip them in the bug. Polyakov, ex-KGB agent and secret Ace, looks at the parade of incompetence surrounding him and decides that it’s up to him to whip these morons into something resembling a functional team. Popinjay briefly pops in for a subplot that will continue into the next novel, the Great and Powerful Turtle is well-intentioned but pretty much useless, the Envoy is working his magic behind the scenes, and Carnifex… well, he’s there, I guess, though on the wrong side as usual and without much to do. But the real star of the show is a villain. Not Puppetman, who is wholly reprehensible and just plain disgusting; not Mack the Knife, who has gone completely off the deep end and is leaving a trail of massacres in his wake; but Demise.

Ah, Demise. It’s no secret that, despite being a villain, he’s one of my favorite characters from the Wild Cards universe. Sure, he’s a remorseless murderer, but give the guy at least this much credit: he has morals. After seeing Barnett’s supporters work over Tony, he was going to abandon his mission to kill Puppetman because it would be better for the country; but once he learned that Puppetman was an evil manipulator like the Astronomer, he rededicated himself to the task despite the risk because he knew the alleged “heroes” had totally botched the Astronomer situation before he arrived and would most likely totally botch the Puppetman situation as well. Because if you say anything about Demise, say this for him: he gets results. Tally up the score, and Demise accounted for the deaths of the Astronomer, Puppetman, and Mack the Knife. That’s two story arc Big Bads and one story arc Dragon (as in the trope, not the big, scaly, flying lizards with lots of teeth and a bad attitude) to his credit, which off the top of my head I believe is the highest number of big important villains ever dispatched by a single character. He may have been a villain, but he got shit down. Sadly, this is his last outing in the Wild Cards series, as Dr. Tachyon has his body cremated to prevent it from regenerating again. Good-night, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (Why angels? Because all the bad stuff he did is most likely outweighed by the serious karma he gained from saving the whole damn world, twice: once from the Astronomer, and once from the preemptive nuclear strike that Polyakov warned would be launched by Russia against the United States if Puppetman was elected president).

Demise isn’t the only character departing the series; this book serves as a natural end for Puppetman’s arc as well. He’s lost everything: his Ace power, his political influence, his reputation, and his family – an appropriately bitter and lonely end for the monster who used mind control to ruin the lives of others. The only possible direction left to take his character after hitting this rock-bottom would be some kind of redemption story, and that would be an utterly terrible idea. Puppetman is abhorrent beyond redemption: a rapist and murderer who pushed his wife down a flight of stairs in order to kill his unborn child and feed off of their pain. To try and redeem him and present him as a good guy would be so disgusting, so despicable that I’d lose all respect for the writers. Fortunately, Puppetman’s story ends here; like the Nur al-Allah, he will never be seen again.

Never. Seen. Again.

Ace in the Hole is aces; a winning hand for the Wild Cards series.

Final Rating: 5/5