Yikes! Has it really been 21 years since the first WILD CARDS “mosaic” novel? Difficult to imagine, but true. And during all this time, while George R.R. Martin has established himself as one of the foremost creators of fantasy series, he’s also overseen the publication of 18 books in this complex and inventive science-fiction series.
BUSTED FLUSH, the very latest, breathes new and contemporary life into the series, with an energy and urgency that was sometimes missing from the last few entries. But as is the case with so many contributors in this shared universe, there are noticeable difficulties with pacing and narrative shifts.
To briefly recap the series’ premise: In 1946, a DNA-altering alien virus was accidentally leaked into the skies of New York City. The virus killed 90 percent of those infected. Another 9 percent survived, but mutated into deformed creatures, known as “jokers.” The remaining 1 percent gained various kinds of superpowers, and now are known as “aces.”
This new book takes place in the present time of this imagined world. At the United Nations, veteran ace John Fortune, now with revised powers since the last WILD CARDS novel (INSIDE STRAIGHT), assembles a new generation of young aces, known as The Committee. Trouble brewing around the world needs immediate attention. A strange nuclear explosion has occurred in a small town in Texas. The sole survivor, a young boy named Drake, is suspected of a terrorist plot. A genocidal war is reported in the oil region of Nigeria, near the People’s Paradise of Africa. Also, a Middle Eastern prince is suspected of inducing an oil shortage in order to assert a political stronghold. And finally, hurricanes are threatening the Gulf Coast of the United States, further complicated by an outbreak of zombies in New Orleans. Fortune assigns teams of assorted aces to investigate each of these problems and intervene as necessary.
The narrative shuttles back and forth between the various perspectives of individual aces in the four main storylines. Each of these is presented by an individual or team of contributing authors, and they bring with them the various moods and pacing befitting their particular section. As complicated as this is, it is further complicated by the array of shapeshifting, teleporting, channeling and various other powers of the numerous ace players.
So it falls to Martin and Melinda Snodgrass to bring some kind of consistency and unity to the whole thing. And generally, they succeed. But the shifts in pacing are often abrupt and uneven, and it is an exhausting challenge to keep all the various characters and their abilities straight.
But there are rewards for the effort. The parallel world of the aces and jokers provides a wonderful opportunity for satire as events play out in a sort of superhero-occupied version of our own world’s current conflicts. And the authors keep things lively and real with various petty jealousies, in-fighting and trysts among the aces. They may posses superpowers, but they are far from perfect; at times, their efforts fall short of triumphant.
Two of the four narratives are particularly noteworthy. Drake, the survivor of the nuclear explosion in Texas, escapes from a holding facility with the help of Niobe, a Genetrix who gives birth to powerful, but unfortunately short-lived, baby aces immediately following copulation. Niobe suspects that Drake has a more direct role in the mysterious explosion, but protects him as they make their way across the arid Southwest in search of protection from government agents.
The New Orleans story is darky humorous as the tribe of zombies is traced to a Hoodoo Mama whose power is reanimating the dead. She steadfastly refuses to evacuate herself or her “family” from the oncoming hurricanes, but is finally convinced of the danger and recruits her walking dead to assist in relocating the other residents to higher ground.
The Nigerian and Middle Eastern stories lack the suspense and offbeat creativity of the New Orleans and Texas stories, but they effectively present scenes of large- and small-scale skirmishes in their stories of the struggle for control of oil, with the aces adding their own strange ammunition to the usual bullets and bombs.
But as entertaining as it is, BUSTED FLUSH is not for the uninitiated. Those already familiar with past exploits of the aces and jokers will have an easier time keeping up with the numerous characters and events. Everyone else might want to first read INSIDE STRAIGHT or some of the background essays provided on the series website before taking on the latest addition to this unique but intricate series. —Alan Cranis