WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
Continuing what could be viewed as "WILD CARDS: THE NEXT GENERATION," this nineteenth entry in the WILD CARDS series takes up shortly after the events of the previous novel, INSIDE STRAIGHT, left off and reintroduces readers to the former contestants from the American Hero reality show. Now banded together as the U.N.-fronted Committee and lead by John Fortune (son of the late (?) super-pimp Fortunato and winged former-cheerleader Peregrine, still sort of possessed by the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet), that motley crew of Aces travels the globe in order to quell horrific situations raging from natural disasters to armed military coups. not totally secure in the knowledge that their assorted superpowers can win the day, much less get themselves home in one piece. As is typical for the mosaic (multiple writer) format of the series the action jumps all over the place, but the main plots take place in Africa, Iran (in an alternate reality take on our current war in the Middle East) and Texas, finally converging in a battle over which faction takes possession of an adolescent whose terrifying, uncontrollable ability renders him a human thermonuclear bomb.
As WILD CARDS novels go, this one is worth reading, but is a middling entry when stacked against much of what came before it. Sure, any long-running series will hit a series of peaks and valleys in terms of holding reader interest, but if you ask me the key to keeping the readers riveted is having characters and situations that generate some sort of desire to keep going, and the problem with this installment and its predecessor is that for the most part the new crop of heroes and villains just aren't that interesting. Lemme break down what's up, both the good and the not-so-good:
- The American Idol parody, American Hero, could have gone somewhere had not the ubiquity of the original show long ago grown tired to the point of annoyance, so the joke's about four years out past relevance. Fortunately it doesn't have the prominence here that it did in the previous volume, so at least that's something.
- Of the new batch of heroes only the Amazing Bubbles, Genetrix and the three-person entity of Double Helix/Bahir and Lilith can really hold their own, interest-wise, for long stretches of chapter space, and much of what occurs when the focus is not on them amounts to a mediocre superhero soap opera.
- Speaking of which, the soap opera triangle of John Fortune, Drummer Boy — my vote for the most annoying and uninteresting of the new generation — and Curveball reaches new levels of predictable "who gives a fuck?" tedium and leaves the door wide open for more in the next book. Whoop-de-fuckin'-doo.
- Original series character the Radical — an intensely powerful "friend" of Mark Meadows, aka Captain Trips — returns as an international "combat hippie," and appears to have sadly lost nearly all of the altruistic ideals and moral center held by his host. And speaking of his host, Meadows is now a mere minor presence among the many personalities existing in his head and his attempts at regaining control from an increasingly violent Radical are impotent at best. As a huge fan of the Captain, I'm dying to see how or if Meadows overcomes that Radical asshole and returns to the sweet, spiritual burnout that readers came to love. Oh, and his daughter, Sprout, is still around and still possesses the mind of a loving four-year-old in a body that's pushing forty.
- The Carnifex/Midnight Angel romance from two books back rekindles but is given rather short shrift, coming as it does in the midst of the foofawraw over the nuclear kid, aka "Little fat Boy." Hopefully more will be seen of this since it's one of the few romantic subplots that's worth caring about.
- Noel, aka Double Helix is a fascinating character, even when he/she's not in his/her Lilith or Bahir forms, and I demand more of this character as soon as possible.
- Most disturbing new character: the Lady of Pain. You've got to read about her for yourself, but her version of empathic healing is something you'd never, ever want to see in real life.
- Zombie-fans will definitely appreciate the addition of Hoodoo Mama, a bitchy New Orleans chick who commands the dead, regardless of species.
WILD CARDS: BUSTED FLUSH hits bookstores in December and is published by Tor Books.