Wednesday 23 November 2016

High Stakes - Wild Cards 23


High Stakes - Wild Cards 23
edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass
Tor Books ISBN: 9780765335823

Well, here I go again. Almost 30 years since I started reading the first Wild Cards books (in those wonderful Brian Bolland covers), the Aces, Jokers and Nats are back in the 23rd of the mosaic novels to date.

Looking in the ‘previous books in the series’ style listing in the front of the volume finds that the publishers have now split up different chronological groups into subsets that, despite all the novels overlapping and making up the same timeline, are obviously arranged to allow people to peruse the shared Wild Cards universe in an easier manner. So we have little subsections like The Puppetman Quartet, The Rox Triad, The Card Sharks Triad etc. This new novel, High Stakes, is apparently the final part of The Fort Freak Triad but, I really couldn’t care, truth be told. After the cliffhanger ending of Lowball (reviewed here), I couldn’t wait to find out if the apocalypse had been ushered in and the world was about to end for the collective of characters in this particular literary universe.

I put a pretty high profile 'spoiler warning' in that last review where I predicted that the old enemy The Astrologer would be back and that the streets would be running red with blood. Well, I have to say, I got it dead wrong about the return of the astrologer but the absolute carnage in this particular tome is certainly on a level with some of the blood baths of the very early days. This one is a battle royale like no other in the series and I was almost surprised, whenever I looked away from the words on the pages, that the leaves of the book themselves weren’t running crimson with the blood of lost souls. It’s an apocalyptic battle, to be sure.

This novel carries on directly from the end of the last book, with Marcus the snake man (aka The Infamous Black Tongue) fleeing the botched rescue showdown of the last volume with his new girlfriend, after the death of a very much loved character in the last novel who he does return for... at some point. The Wild Cards writers have never been shy at killing off their characters and the last novel was no different. You get a sense of finality and closure here, to some of the characters that were lost in the last novel. So we have Marcus trying to get out of Talos, as does Franny (Detective Francis Xavier Black) who had travelled to Talos to stop one abomination only to find, once he stopped it, that in doing so he automatically unleashed the ensuing apocalypse. And he has to get out of Talos too... but this time as the puppet-pet of the lead villainess of the last book, Baba Yaga, who he slowly builds a certain bond of understanding with. Kind of.

High Stakes pretty much focusses on the relatively new characters of the recent Wild Cards volumes, although there are still some old timers ‘in the mess’, so to speak, as key players in this novel. There’s even an uncredited Croyd (aka The Sleeper) sighting in this one again, although this story has nothing to do with his character this time and he’s not even mentioned in the ‘end credits’ of the book (I believe he was originally created and written by late great sci-fi writer Roger Zelazny in the earliest Wild Cards books). However, readers still know this generation of characters well and it’s completetly suspenseful to read about some much loved fictional people being pushed and ripped asunder, both mentally and physically, as they try to stop the sheer dread of an advancing army of a surrealistic terror realm slowly creeping across the world.

Early on in the novel, the writers drop in an almost Mothra-like incident which is something they could call on to save the day in the final battle as it plays out here. All the way through I was waiting for a certain character to ‘pop’ out into the world in a new form and drop back into the plot all 'deus ex machina' in the last act. To their credit, the writers didn’t actually use that strand at all and, in the end, a different resolution.... or a different kind of resolution (take your pick)... is introduced into the text. I’m not going to say whether it’s a good or bad resolution but... yeah, there is at least a sense of closure to the unspeakable evil that is slowly destroying the world.

The book doesn’t let up in the pacing department from the get go... which is not actually that surprising since we are basically dropped back into the middle of a story which we’d already started but, I have to say, just keeps speeding up and getting more ugly and darker as it carries on towards its conclusion... which is just what I would expect from a team of writers who have woven together such special characters and situations over the years. And, as usual, interjected into all this mayhem are some great little concepts and some nice explorations of the machinations of the unique powers of some of the characters which, sometimes, may have you laughing out loud, just like me when I was reading this. For all its grotesque insanity and high stakes bedlam, the book still manages to find time for a lot of humour within its pages and, all I can say is that the writers, as always, do a fantastic job.

There is also an epilogue section in the novel, which shows some of the characters once their ‘final solution’ has been played out. Now I don’t want to put any spoilers in here for anybody but I will say that one of my favourite characters out of the last few books definitely has a slight shift in personality here. There is a certain vengeful part of the epilogue which, almost, signals a loss of innocence or, at the very least, an unwillingness to stick to a more heroic code from one of the main players of the last two books. I felt sad about this scene but, if the writers of this series know anything, it’s how to write drama and I can only imagine, ten years from now, how this fictional person’s arc will play out. After all, I remember when Mark Meadows was one of the heroes of the books, for people who can recall back to the early novels and how his character turned out 40 or so years later in the shared chronology of the Wild Cards universe. No, Mark Meadows is not in this one... I was just using it as an example for long time fans of the series but... yeah... the point is that there’s a shift in tone towards the end and one wonders how this will play out for a certain character in the future of the series.

For almost thirty years now I’ve been saying that the Wild Cards stories should be made into a high budget TV show. Not a movie because, frankly, that wouldn’t have the scope and breadth required in a mere two or three hours to even begin to cover the contents of the first novel. Well, fairly recently it looks like Hollywoodland have finally agreed with me and, after the success of a certain other George R. R. Martin property on the airwaves, it looks like a Wild Cards TV show is finally...well... on the cards, if you’ll forgive the pun. This fills me with both hope and trepidation. Hope because, well, modern CGI special effects are finally at a point where they might be able to cope with something of this nature. Trepidation, however, because I hope they’ll give the earlier novels a fair crack and, when all is said and done, they really are going to have to throw a huge amount of money at each and every episode to make this thing work properly, methinks.

Either way, getting back to the subject at hand, High Stakes - A Wild Cards Novel is certainly going to keep fans of this long running literary sensation happy. For people who aren’t long running fans, however, it might not make the most sense and I can only urge you to start at the very beginning if you want to get into these amazing adventures. Either way... excellent book and bravo, once again, to all the writers who are able to magically juggle all these character strands without getting lost in the fray. I applaud you all.

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