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