My Wild Cards Experience

From The Ice Dragon to Wild Cards to Dying of the Light to Tuf Voyaging and everything in between.

My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Vaxis » Tue Aug 25, 2015 5:24 pm

So I decided to try Wild Cards a few weeks ago. I'm currently in the third book, I suppose because I found the series sufficiently gripping. I thought about sharing my experience with the series here, because I didn't want to hijack someone else's thread to do it.

I'll post short reviews (no spoilers) of the books as I get to them.

Wild Cards I:

Honestly, I liked most of the stories in here, especially the earlier chapters describing the first 20 years of life after the virus. Waldrop, Zelazny, Williams, and especially Martin and Snodgrass all wrote some generally thoughtful and stirring pieces which form the foundation of the whole series going forward. The story keeps returning over the decades to centerpieces from these stories such as Dr. Tachyon, Croyd Crenson, the so-called "Four Aces", and others. Even certain places like the steadily growing district of Jokertown begin to feel like characters. As these early stories flow into one another, the series evolves emotionally. This part of the book gave me a huge Watchmen vibe (which is a very good thing), and events take a pleasantly dark turn as mysteries and conflicts crop up that obviously will span more than the one book (especially in the stories by Shiner and Leigh).

However, the later stories lost a lot of that luster in my opinion, with some of the other writers wielding heavy-handed styles that use a huge number of POVs in a short space (which is disorienting), or exhibiting overly gratuitous scenes of sex and violence beyond anything I remember even from ASOIAF. Both heroes and villains gradually get more cartoonish at this point. The last story (by Miller) before the epilogue is downright flat, robotic, and predictable.

By the way, I read the 2010 Tor Books reprint of the original novel, which added 3 new stories by new writers. The stories by Cassut and Vaughn were uninteresting and rushed... but the story by Levine was a real gem of political intrigue and unlikely heroism.

Ultimately, after the blunt shock value and inflated peripheral cast in the second half of the book, I was already reminiscing fondly of the first half of the book when Zelazny, Williams, Martin, and Snodgrass kept me reading late at night. More and more, I just wanted to return to Tachyon, who is by and far the most empathetic, active, and very ironically the most human protagonist of the story.

So overall, I definitely found myself moving onto Wild Cards II: Aces High the next day, hoping to read lots more about those central characters I mentioned earlier and grew surprisingly close to, characters like Tachyon, Croyd and the Turtle. In that respect, Aces High was quite satisfying, and spent more time on over-arching conflict and mystery. However I would end up disappointed that Aces High actually ramped up the disorienting style of using dozens of tertiary POVs (for sometimes as little half a page) to describe events that would have been better off left shrouded in some mystery... More to come.
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Azizal » Tue Aug 25, 2015 9:20 pm

You're definitely tempting me to read it, so I look forward to what else you have to say. It will likely encourage me even more.
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Vaxis » Thu Aug 27, 2015 2:19 pm

If you do seek more encouragement, I can tell you that I was pretty happy with WC:III, and also that WC:IV is so far proving to be a very magnetic thriller, a well-written adventure spiced with some downright terrifying villains. Though it obviously cannot come anywhere close to ASOIAF in scope or depth, it seems like something that would capture any comic book fan, and many sci-fi fans. I hope that holds up, because it seems like there's plenty more volumes down the line.

But before I can get to that... I'll briefly describe my thoughts on the second entry. Again, spoiler-free.

Wild Cards II: Aces High

Like the first book, there are some positive and negative attributes here, but also like the first book, it's worth the time spent. Again, Martin and Snodgrass write the standout components of the book, successfully tying together all of the various characters that are introduced while also delving deep into the psyches of the most central figures.

With the story now firmly stuck in the mid-eighties (caught up to the time when these books were first published), the story is free to explore the current political and cultural environment rather than parse through the changing decades. And it also allows for big climactic events, which the anthology nature of the first book was never really built for. In fact, Aces High features some plot points of cataclysmic size for the world and characters. And it's all built up with a series of intriguing and rewarding clues, the sort which leave you investigating the pages in your mind even after you put the book away.

My big gripe here is that these clues and flashbacks are often delivered through far too many POVs, given the size of the book. Some are used only for a few sentences, then discarded. It's simply too fast-paced and sometimes too confusing. More mysteries should have been preserved rather than exposed through the viewpoints of gang thugs and random passersby.

At least the throwaways don't take up too much space - the characters taking up the most pages in Aces High are those I suspect would be most reader's favorites from the first volume. And some of the new POVs with recurring chapters are very enjoyable to read (pleasantly surprised by Jube the newspaper salesman!).

The ending features a sufficiently intense confrontation that's got just the right amount of revelation, before paving the way for Wild Cards III: Jokers Wild, which is marked by yet another large change of pace and writing style.

A small aside: The title of this second book should have been switched with that of the third one, if you ask me. It seems to make a ton more sense that way.
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Vaxis » Mon Aug 31, 2015 3:44 am

Wild Cards III: Jokers Wild

Or as I like to call it, Wild Cards III: Shit Hits the Fan. This instalment in the series is structured as a series of confrontations and manhunts that collide with explosive force. The climax resolves plot threads going back to the beginning of Wild Cards, and overall tells us that the first three volumes are a sort of triad of their own (even though IV will pick up right after). In fact, I hear that this became a tradition of the series going forward, where there would be two novels of mostly self-contained stories and then a third which ties them all together like a superhero version of Pulp Fiction.

To serve those ends, this entire volume takes place over a single 24-hour period. To be exact, it takes place on the 40th Wild Card Day, a raucous city-wide festival which "celebrates" the release of the original xenovirus. A mix of old favorites and intriguing new characters take the stage here, narrowing the POV such that we spend a lot of time with them.

The range of characters is wide here, some are deeply disturbed and floating from one atrocity to the next, and some are characters we've met before, who try to live out their everyday lives and get caught in the crossfire. I was pleasantly surprised with Bagabond, Yeoman, and Hiram Worchester, who all failed to impress in earlier appearances but all now get to shine. Fans of Fortunato, whom appear to be many from what I gather, will have much to look forward to as well (though fans of the Turtle will be left waiting). I won't name the main villain, but I will note that they are even more terrifying and monstrous this time around.

All in all, some satisfying resolution and a good bit of setup. But there are flaws. First, the short time-frame of a single day removes most feeling of character growth and growing mystery. This just comes with the style - it's not so bad since we've been following most of these characters for two volumes already. Secondly, the sheer amount of action and fast movement here is a bit overwhelming. There are precious few moments where we can rest and take stock of events (though Hiram's annual dinner is an excellent example of such).

The above are pretty subjective, as I can easily see others enjoying the style and pace more than I did. The third flaw I'll mention is quite different. Though we see yet more of the fast-lane world of aces both celebrity and criminal, there is no Joker perspective, and it's been a rare thing in the series at all despite Jokes having huge importance to the setting and background. Jube from the second book is the best example of a Joker perspective, but he doesn't even technically count.

Thankfully, WC IV: Aces Abroad took care of all these flaws, and has far more strengths. It's been a thrill to read and should be fun to review.
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Vaxis » Thu Sep 03, 2015 9:55 am

Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad

I've been talking about this one to anybody who will listen over the past week, and I've really been looking forward to reviewing it. I liked the first three books well enough (especially the first), but this one stands head and shoulders above them all. Aces Abroad contains everything I was hoping to see more of in this series, and mixes it in with scenes of stunning beauty and bone-chilling fear.

So let's talk about some of the aspects that make this one so dang good.

The premise: In the aftermath of the 1986 Wild Card Day, the UN and WHO sponsor a round-the-world trip for several hand-picked delegates of nats, aces and even jokers. The mission: to learn about how the Wild Card virus is affecting countries the world over, and how the virus is being treated and what conditions the survivors live in.

This fact-finding team is composed of politicians like Senator Gregg Hartman, members of the press, celebrity aces such as Peregrine, Golden Boy and Hiram Worchester, and even some well-known jokers like Chrysalis and Xavier Desmond. Oh, and of course Dr. Tachyon himself is tagging along. This collection of delegates is nicknamed the Stacked Deck, a pleasing continuation of the card game nomenclature these authors so love. They (and thus, we) get to step away from Manhattan for an overdue look at the rest of the world.

And let me tell you, the combination of viewpoints here is wonderful. Each character gets sufficient time to shine, with sometimes shocking results. And during the whole 5-month trip, we watch the team travel through dozens of countries on every continent, each one facing it's own myriad issues regarding the virus, or simply the regular political upheavals that plague every decade. Chrysalis serves as a viewpoint into a terrifying mystery on poverty-stricken Haiti. Peregrine comes into her own as a protagonist in Egypt, Golden Boy and Tachyon confront their past in Paris. Both old characters and new give us insight into places such as Guatemala, Australia, Japan and the USSR. And because I am reading the 2010 reprint, there are two additional stories featuring Troll and in Peru and Lady Black in Prague, both of which I enjoyed.

And woven throughout this already epic tapestry are subplots that just don't let the reader go. One is a series of journal entries written by Xavier Desmond, the aging and ailing "Mayor of Jokertown". Desmond's chronicling of the events of the journey (written by GRRM) serve as the main recurring thread through the story, planting us deeper in the characters heads than has ever been done before in Wild Cards. Another such gripping subplot is that of Senator Gregg Hartmann, who centered in a particularly violent story from the first book, and has now returned to much acclaim. This character is almost as well-written as Xavier Desmond, which is saying quite a lot, and his entries build upon the political stories of past books while setting up for a future book I hope to get to soon. The above two threads are probably the strongest in the book.

If that all sounds chaotic and hectic, it's only because I fail to describe it well. Aces Abroad is full of action but without being overwhelming, offers non-stop thrills while somehow giving characters more room to grow than the previous books. The antagonists are terrifying but intriguing. We see how the entire world is handling not only the presence of aces and jokers but also the arrival of the delegates themselves. And just as importantly as all that, we finally get our Joker perspectives, in a deeper and stronger way than I could have predicted. Jokers feature in this book as prominently as aces and Tachyon himself.

All that praise, and yet I can't seem to find any complaints with this book. I'm not sure if there was a single page I didn't enjoy. Perhaps there are a couple stories that didn't really tie into the rest in a meaningful way... but that's simply the pattern of Wild Cards, we can expect these story arcs to intersect and clash in the next couple installments.

What a fun read. Aces Abroad is beautiful, intelligent, frightening, and highly ambitious. It is all these things and more, in a way that the first three books in the series were not. However, the sheer humanity and relevance in this book does mirror that which I found in the first Wild Cards, so I feel like things have come full circle in a satisfying way (even though I know this ride is just beginning). Of course, Wild Cards doesn't even deign to approach the scale and scope of ASOIAF, for example... but Aces Abroad gets the closest.

Well, I've caught up to the 2010 Tor reprinting run. Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty does not get it's reprint out until October, so I'll have to look to older editions. It may take a bit of time to get around to it, but I'm particularly excited for the next two books because I have a bit of an idea of what they will be about just by reading the titles...
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Vaxis » Sun Sep 06, 2015 2:49 pm

By the way, for those who want to check out some semi-spoiler synopses (and full spoiler reviews and notes), check out:

http://www.wildcardsonline.com/

This place also has a good character database, an art gallery showing the covers of all the editions of each volume (!!!) and a humorous logbook tracking appearances of Croyd Crensen (the Sleeper) throughout the books and decades.

Interestingly, the site author(s) seems to have many opinions to opposite to mine, giving most praise to the books 2 and 3 (the "true mosaic" books with connected plots), and having less positive to say about the first volume, and even less about book 4: Aces Abroad, due to the isolated nature of the stories. Most notably, the author claims book 4 is one of the least popular entries, while I simply loved it. At least we agree that Xavier Desmond was a wonderful recurring narrative, and for the same reasons.

It goes to show how much preference differs when it comes to style. Myself personally, I don't find it an utter necessity to continually link stories and characters together in the spirit of Marvel Avengers. It often works to great acclaim (book 3: Jokers Wild pulls it off well), but requires insane editing work and can sometimes end up overwhelming. I already explained why I loved book 4 so much. It's all interconnected in a similar way to book 2, yet it still allows much breathing room to every character and their inner thoughts. Again I draw a Watchmen comparison - maybe I shouldn't hold up that glorious comic as a standard, but it certainly works as a goal. And it was books 1 and 4 that reminded me most of how Watchmen treats its characters and themes, even if books 2 and 3 were the ones that emulated it's pace and style.

Well anyways, I got my hands on more eBooks, so I'm going to start on Wild Cards 5: Down and Dirty! It appears to promise more of Bagabond and Sewer Jack and an ongoing crime war in the Manhattan underground. After that I move onto book 6, which I'm more excited for, given the covers I saw...
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Azizal » Mon Sep 28, 2015 2:29 pm

Thanks again for all this, I'm avoiding spoilers but am glad to know that I can come and look at this once I've read them.
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Re: My Wild Cards Experience

Postby Vaxis » Tue Sep 29, 2015 10:18 am

As it happens, I've actually finished Wild Cards 12 yesterday. That's right, twelve. I decided to hold off on more reviews because I think four is a good place to leave it, it should be enough info for anyone who is thinking about jumping in.

I'm definitely glad I started reading the series, but there are low points - book 8 has some seriously twisted stuff that trumps anything in ASOIAF, for example, and there are too many unlikeable characters...

On the other hand, the high points absolutely soar. For example, the combo of books 6 and 7 is a masterpiece of writing and editing, most of it all belonging to GRRM.
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