Thursday, 12 September 2019

Wild Cards - Knaves Over Queens

Knaves All Gazing

Wild Cards
Knaves Over Queens

Edited by George R. R. Martin
Harper Voyager ISBN: 9780008283599

Knaves Over Queens is the 27th in the series of editor (and, once upon a time, contributing writer) George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards mosaic novels. It’s an absolutely brilliant series of books and I’ve written numerous reviews of the more recent tomes in the series on this review blog. The stories tell of an alternate historical timeline which splits off from our own after Jetboy fails to stop the release of an alien virus from the planet Takis in the 1940s, known later as the Wild Cards virus. Humanity is changed in the wake of the virus which leaves behind superheroes (known as Aces), hideous malformed freaks (known as Jokers), Knaves (who are a kind of combination of both… Joker Aces if you will), nats (naturals... those left with absolutely no change) and a lot of people who just die when their ‘card turns’ (when the virus finally manifests itself in their body at some point in their lifetime), which is known as ‘drawing the black queen’, naturally.

This new novel, though, is not a continuation of the various characters who have been living in this universe in the more recent of the novels from the last decade or so (this series of books has been going since the 1980s). Instead, this new one goes right back to the times of the very first book of the series but gives us the various interlocking short stories of what was happening in the United Kingdom at the same time. So this is, essentially, a British Wild Cards novel but, even though some of the contributing writers are the same (including the queen of the Wild Cards writers herself, Melinda M. Snodgrass), it perfectly captures the spirit and fluctuating tone of the rest of the series and it’s one of the more interesting of the series I’ve read recently… although they’re pretty much all good, it has to be said.

Now, there’s one thing I suspect the original writers of the Wild Cards series did without considering the consequences of success too much with their very first novel and over the years I’ve come to look at it as a mistake, with the gift of hindsight. And that is the fact that, in that first volume, the writers flew through the decades from the 1940s to what was then the present of the 1980s all in one glorious gulp… so many of the subsequent novels had to be set, more or less, all around the same time. However, having said that, I can’t qualify that as an accident on the latest collection of stories because Knave Over Queens, sadly, does exactly the same thing. There are single stories set one each apiece in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s… a few in the 1980s and then onto one or two stories of each of the intervening decades from then until the present decade… and this is a great shame, I feel. Not that it isn’t a lot of fun, for sure but, it would have been nice if some of the new characters and scenarios developed in these wonderful shorts could have been maybe explored in more detail with, say, one decade per novel or some such.

That being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt the tome any and it’s as furiously fast paced as some of the best Wild Cards novels. There are, as usual, some rich character ideas and situations so you have some interesting origin stories ranging from what was happening aboard the Queen Mary, stopped from entering New York harbour when the Wild Card virus was first released in the 1940s, an alternate look at the reign of terror perpetrated by The Kray Twins in the 1960s and a heck of a lot of stuff about various ‘terrorist’ groups such as the IRA and the Twisted Fists (who long time readers of the Wild Cards series will certainly remember).

There’s also the usual interesting characters peppered throughout with Alan Turing, for instance, drawing an Ace of sorts and going by the code name Enigma. Or Mick Jagger who, we are told, would sleep with anyone but who is also, in addition to being a pop star, a werewolf. And all this is set in a world where, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Princess Elisabeth drew the black queen and Princess Margaret was crowned queen. A world where Winston Churchill’s ace allowed him to lead an extended life, including a long political life, where he set up The Order Of The Silver Helix… which is the British equivalent of the aces who work secretly for the government. Another character proves himself fairly useful in the ‘Falklands Conflict’ which I remember seeing all over the news in the 1980s.

As usual, the various characters and incidents either connect to or, at the very least, have consequences in other stories in the novel although, like the very first novel all those years ago, it’s less of a single story arc coming together so much as a few story arcs clashing and sustaining the weight of the various mini adventures throughout. So there are three sets of characters who appear at different times or are at least mentioned in a number of, often unconnected stories, who are there to give a little glue to the thing as a whole. One character starts off his adventure from the Queen Mary in the 1940s and is still going strong by the last stories set in contemporary times. Another character, a nasty goddess who weaves a spell of quite gory death as she plays off the various sides of ‘the troubles’ has her own story arc which leaves the novel with a chilling climax rather than anything a little more upbeat. A third character starts off his adventures as a spin writer for the alternate history version of Margaret Thatcher before his card turns and he ends up having to go undercover for Winston Churchill, in order to infiltrate an organisation which will mean something to regular readers of the series. These are all woven into the fabric of the novel and often find themselves on various sides of conflicts going on in various stories.

There are some nice Easter eggs and bonuses for regular readers too.  Now my mind is a bit fuzzy on all the characters in the Wild Cards universe I’ve read over the last 30 odd years but I will say that there’s a least one story that took me by surprise, somewhat, as being the origins of a character who occasionally makes some dramatic and violence filled appearances over the years. And, although there are a few crossovers with characters from the earlier novels, there aren’t all that many blatant crossovers (at least not as blatant as the aforementioned Miss. Snodgrass’ wonderful contribution to the novel). There are, however, a fair few mentions (and probably a lot of little cameos I didn’t pick up on) so frequent followers of the series will, as I said earlier, have a richer experience with this particular tome than people who are just jumping on at this point. That being said, I didn’t catch one Croyd Crenson reference in this one but... I guess you can’t have everything.

And, as you might expect from these stories by now, there is a rich variation of the kind of interlocking tales showcased from here… from 1960s London gangland to a Hatton Garden heist by way of John Le Carre style spy stories, pulp horror and even the horrors of war. So if you’re a fan of postmodernist, eclectic tale spinning with a vaguely super-powered tint and, of course, if you’re already an avid reader, then you will want to grab a copy of this one, for sure. Wild Cards - Knave Over Queens is another triumph for the series and I really hope this doesn’t turn out to be the final novel in the sequence. These books are precious jewels of the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres and they deserve to be cherished for generations to come.

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