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WesternSFA


High Stakes
Edited by George R.R. Martin & Melinda Snodgrass
Tor, $27.99, 566 pp
Published: August 2016

This is the newest installment in the decades-long-running series called Wild Cards; this is either the 23rd or 27th book depending on whether you count the three ebooks and graphic novel.

For those of you who have not yet encountered Martin’s Wild Cards universe, here’s a brief background:  in the 1940s, some aliens decided to use Earth as a proving ground for a virus designed to create super-powered humans.  The virus was released over New York City and can have one of four effects:  mostly normal-appearing but super-powered known as Aces; mostly normal-appearing with a less-than-impressive superpower known as Deuces, a completely non-human, deformed appearance known as Jokers or death by drawing a Black Queen.  The stories have followed different groups of characters since the 1940s.  The series is unique in that the story is a composite done by several authors; it is not an anthology, it is a complete novel.

At the end of the previous book, Lowball (click here for that review), Officer Francis (Franny) Black of Fort Freak (a NYC police precinct), Marcus Morgan, aka IBT, and Mollie Steunenberg, aka Tesseract, get stuck in a third-world country, Talas, Kyrgyzstan in the Russian sphere of influence.  Mollie is trapped into working for an evil old woman known as Baba Yaga who forces her to kidnap Jokers off the streets of New York and teleport them to Talas to fight in an illegal fight ring.  Baba Yaga has a terrible Ace power that terrifies anyone who meets her.  But it turns out that Baba Yaga’s reason for running the fight ring has less to do with making money than it does with actually saving the world from a truly heinous evil.  But that isn’t something Franny knows about when he sets into motion events that destroy Baba Yaga’s control of the evil and sets it loose to destroy this world and others.

This was a very exciting story; albeit the goriest I think I’ve read.  The main characters also include Michelle Pond, aka Bubbles, her erstwhile lover, Joey, aka Hoodoo Mama, Babel and Lohengrin, Bugsy, and the beautiful Black Angel along with Carnifex, her husband.  And just to remind my fellow-fans and entice new readers:  Bubbles creates explosive bubbles, Hoodoo Mama controls dead animals and dead humans, Babel controls people’s ability to comprehend speech, Lohengrin has some awesome physic armor, Bugsy can alter his form into a swarm of wasps – each of which seems to carry his consciousness, Black Angel has a psychic sword that she believes is a gift from God and Billy Ray is just an awesomely powerful thug. Franny is just a nat – an ordinary human, IBT is a giant snakeman with a poisonous tongue, and Tesseract has the ability to open portals through other dimensions.  So, in case you didn’t get it – this universe is populated with comicbook-type heroes and villains.

As events in Talas start escalating, Babel, who leads a UN-controlled Ace team, sends in her best team only to lose them all, including her beloved husband, Lohengrin.  Mollie, Franny and IBT are still in the city as the evil starts to take over.  Mollie almost completely loses her mind, Franny ends up collaborating with the only person who understands what’s happening – Baba Yaga.  IBT follows his sweetheart to a local Joker village with her Russian gangster father following them.  While it’s Franny’s fault that the evil is released, the truth is that it was always a matter of time before it happened anyway.  But it’s up to Franny to make it all right by bringing the truth to the UN; if he can make it there before Baba Yaga loses patience with him and turns him into an ottoman and before the whole world is lost.

This was a massive story following several points-of-view which the authors do very, very well. I got very involved with each of the characters – all of whom were well-defined.  The plot was simple enough but complex in execution.  As a long-time fan, I loved another opportunity to wallow in this world.  And as a long-time fan, it’s hard for me to criticize much; but I honestly can’t see any major criticisms.  I think it would stand well as an introduction to this universe; hopefully enticing new readers to also read the older stories.   ~~ Catherine Book

Contributing authors are:
David Anthony Durham
Melinda M. Snodgrass
Stephen Leigh
John Jos. Miller
Caroline Spector
Ian Tregillis

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