Sunday, January 13, 2008
Although I grew up watching all sorts of cartoons both on Saturday mornings and turning the 2:30-4:30 PM time slot weekdays on the local UHF stations, I never really found comic books to be all that interesting. Maybe it was as much to do with not reading much fiction until my teenage years (which then were taken up with sports playing, so even then it was little more than what was required in my college prep/advanced classes), but I never really tried reading them. So it was with some trepidation when I received an Advance Review Copy of the eighteenth volume of the George R.R. Martin-edited Wild Card series, Inside Straight a couple of months ago. Unlike certain other readers who read and reviewed it (most of them favorably) months ago, I decided to wait until a week or so until the scheduled January 22 release date.
The premise of the series is this: In 1946, there was this alien virus that was released on earth, a virus that still afflicts the populace every so often. Somewhere around 90% of those who contract the virus die from it, the majority of the survivors are deformed in some fashion and have been labelled as "Jokers" (I'm presuming that this is a play off of a capriciousness in the odds, these card-related names), while the fortunate few, called "Aces," are granted various supernatural powers, akin to those seen in comic books. The present volume, Inside Straight, opens in 2007 and is the beginning of a planned three-volume story arc, one that while it references the past (the iconic Jet Boy of the original 1946 period is referenced throughout this novel in many ways, for those curious to know these things), it is self-contained enough that newcomers to the series such as myself can read and enjoy it.
This novel is a very collaborative effort. Martin has assembled eight other writers (Daniel Abraham, Melinda Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, Ian Tregillis, and S.L. Farrell), most of them based in the environs of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to develop the story arc and the next generation of Aces. When I read that these books are collaborative efforts, I thought this would indicate a more fractured storytelling approach. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the authors' contributions are melded together into a unified plot that contains some very richly-drawn characters.
There are two plot strains running in this alternate 2007 world. The first, which opens the novel, concerns the clandestine operation in which a mysterious Ace infiltrates the compound of the newly-reestablished Muslim Caliphate and assassinates the charismatic religious/political leader of the Arab world. The second deals with a much more important matter for millions of Americans, the first reality TV show starring Aces, called American Hero. There are 28 contestants, divided into four groups (naturally, these are the card-related Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs), with the usual asinine "obstacle courses" and immunity challenges and American Idol-like Ace judges, followed by the Real Worldesque "confessionals" and scenes of the contestants engaging in all sorts of tawdry and vicious behaviors that viewers of reality TV shows today have come to expect and perhaps enjoy.
While one might expect there to be quite a bit of dissonance between these two main plot strains, the authors here do a very good job of juxtaposing the situations occurring and the character reactions with one another. It becomes quite obvious about halfway through the novel that one of the main themes of this novel is that of what constitutes being a "hero." The reader has already read a half-dozen chapters dealing with those who want to use their powers to make money or to become famous, but what about those who dream of saving the world or making a difference?
The writers do an excellent job of presenting these questions from various angles. From Daniel Abraham's blog-like chapters starring Jonathan Hive, a blogger/journalist whose Ace power is the ability to transform parts or all of his body into hundreds of wasps, we get to see certain aspects that tie in the Middle East and reality TV strains. From Ian Tregillis, we see how a false accusation can really eat at the spirit (and body) of a shy and awkward teen, as he really wants to do good but others have judged him to be among the lowest of the low. These are just two of the character-centered "chapters" (each author with the exception of Abraham's blog entries and Snodgrass's opening and closing chapters gets a single chapter to develop a character and a situation), but they serve as excellent examples of how this book (and presumably the upcoming trilogy) addresses major cultural, social, and political issues in a way that is not too preachy or too trite.
It was this depth of character analysis in relation to a very complicated setting that impressed me most about this book. These were some well-planned characters and the way that each writer managed to work his or her individual styles into the main storyline in such a seamless fashion really impressed me. Inside Straight grabbed my attention almost immediately, presented quite a few twists and turns in the various character dynamics, and the way that the action unfolded was very well-done for the most part. However, there were a few weak points. Towards the end of the novel, as the Middle East situation takes over most of the spotlight, I couldn't help but question the facileness in which certain characters were just able to enter what amounted to a war zone. But that and a few other issues revolving around how one contestant (Stuntman) confronted another (Rustbelt) are minor in comparison to the story's final impressions. The question of "What constitutes being a hero?" is answered quite well, with an very well-done juxtaposition of one group of contestants with another group at the end that serves to underscore the true answer to that question. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: January 22, 2008 (US), Hardcover