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Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Rustbelt's blistering encounter with a crocodile: just one of the myriad dangers found during his journey into "the Heart of Darkness."

Due for release in December, SUICIDE KINGS, the twentieth volume in the long-running WILD CARDS series, is a vast improvement over its immediate predecessors. The two previous entries in the Tor Books revival of the series — INSIDE STRAIGHT and BUSTED FLUSH — featured mostly a cast of characters best described as WILD CARDS: THE NEXT GENERATION, and for the most part I did not find them all that interesting; the fact that INSIDE STRAIGHT was a novel-length AMERICAN IDOL parody involving superpowers did not help matters, and BUSTED FLUSH's tale of assorted Aces (the series' superpowered protagonists) forming the U.N. super-team "The Committee" pretty much left me cold and led me to declare that the next volume would probably be a make-or-break novel when it came to my continued reading of this stuff. Well, I'm glad to say that SUICIDE KINGS gets everything just right and has reinvigorated my interest to such a degree that I'm counting the months until 2010's next installment, FORT FREAK.

SUICIDE KINGS continues the Committee storyline when one of metallic Ace Wally "Rustbelt" Gunderson's sponsored kids in the Congo goes missing, his disappearance heralded by a letter describing encroaching armed forces. Convincing rapid plant-growth mistress "Gardener" to accompany him, Wally ends up biting off way more than he can chew when the pair arrive in the war-torn Congo to search for the missing child only to discover a Hell on Earth comprised of shapeshifting government thugs, heavily-armed rapists, and a horrifying plan put into action by the revolutionary People's Paradise of Africa. And as if the PPA's machinations aren't bad enough, they're also in bed with the increasingly unstable world's most powerful Ace, the Radical, whose psychotic personality has usurped the body of it's original psyche, the lovable aging hippie Mark Meadows, better known to longtime readers as Captain Trips.

While Rustbelt and Gardener's perilous journey up the Congo forms the book's centerpiece, several other characters from the previous books find themselves inexorably set upon a path that leads them to the heart of the African mishegoss and experiences that test their mettle in ways they were in no way prepared for. The plots of note include:
  • Shapeshifting hermaphrodite/former assassin Noel attempts to come to terms with civilian life and impending fatherhood while being blackmailed into helping his former friend Prince Siraj handle an extremely hostile PPA takeover of his kingdom while also trying to stay under the Radical's vengeful radar. In the previous book Noel engineered the brief abduction of the Radical's cherished daughter, the innocent and mentally-challenged Sprout, who's now around forty, and now Mark Meadow's insane alter ego will stop at nothing to get his hands on the suave British Ace, no matter how many innocent people die in the process. Noel ain't havin' that shit, so he marshalls all of his considerable talents and resources to overthrow the PPA and, as a direct result, find a way to get close enough to the Radical to strike the first hopefully fatal blow...
  • The Amazing Bubbles — nee Michelle Pond — survives absorbing the atomic explosion that would have leveled New Orleans in the previous book and awakens just over a year later to find herself immensely huge, thanks to her ability to "plump up" when hit with concussive energy. During her coma she saw visions of a little girl in Africa who called to her for help, so once conscious and "bubbled down" back to her normal size, Michelle sets off to Africa find the child, accompanied by foul-mouthed re-animator of the dead, Joey, also known as "Hoodoo Mama."
  • Human wasp swarm Jonathan Hive, aka "Bugsy," continues his affair with the deceased Simoon, courtesy of Cameo's ability to channel the dead girl through one of her earrings, but matters are complicated when the lost hat that allows Cameo to access the spirit of her also dead detective lover, Nick (aka "Will-o'-Wisp"), is recovered. While juggling the relationship dynamics of dating a dead woman who's channeled into the body of a totally different woman who's in love with the spirit of a dead man that she can channel, Bugsy tracks down the clues to the Radical's past and soon discovers there's more to the Mark meadows connection than he ever suspected.
All of these plotlines converge seamlessly and it's compelling to see it all come together. The character bits are spot on, there's a palpable sense of terrifying danger throughout, the action sequences are riveting, and the climax involving all of the major players is nothing less than spectacular. There's even a death scene that brought me to tears and choked me up when I read it on the subway. Totally satisfying from the first page to the last, SUICIDE KINGS is a glorious return to form for the WILD CARDS series that I would rank among the best of the run, and I want more. Right now, gawdammit!!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED (but only if you've read the previous volumes; otherwise this will make virtually no sense.)

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