Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date – 12 June 2018
From of eight of the world’s leading science fiction and fantasy writers comes the latest addition to the superhero-filled Wild Cards universe, edited by fantasy legend George R. R. Martin.
Wild Cards is one of the more interesting series currently running in the world today due to its distinctive anthology format and the unusual way the series came into existence. The stories that would eventually form the Wild Cards books were originally written as part of a lengthy Superworld role-playing game campaign that had Martin as gamemaster. Martin and the other players, all of whom were science fiction writers, created elaborate backstories for the campaign and characters, which were eventually incorporated into the first book in the series, a dark and gritty superhero based anthology also called Wild Cards. The following entries in the series, despite routinely changing authors, tended to follow the same format as the original book by combining together a series of short stories into a connected narrative. Low Chicago is the 25th Wild Cards book to be released since the 1987 debut, with two other entries due to be published later in 2018.
The Wild Cards books are set in an alternative universe where an alien virus, known as the Wild Card virus, was released in 1946 above New York City. This virus affected thousands throughout the planet, killing most of the people it came into contact with and altering the DNA of the survivors. The vast majority of the infected who remained alive were mutated physically and are now referred to as Jokers. However, a small percentage gained superhuman abilities and powers and are referred to as Aces. The stories that followed have been set between 1946 and a time period that usually corresponds to the book’s real world publication date.
In Low Chicago, Martin continues to serve as editor. The book includes input from two long-running Wild Cards contributors, John J. Miller and Melinda M. Snodgrass, who authored stories in the original Wild Cards. There is also input from previous contributors Paul Cornell, Marko Kloos, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Kevin Andrew Murphy, as well as newcomers to the series, Saladin Ahmed and Christopher Rowe.
Low Chicago starts in 2017, where a high-stakes poker game has been set up in the city’s famous Palmer House Hotel by a prominent mafia boss. Each of the seven players has a one million dollar buy-in, and is allowed to bring two attendants including bodyguards. However, all hell breaks loose when a mysterious assailant targets one of the players, causing the other players and attendants, many of whom are powerful Aces, to unleash their abilities throughout the room. In the middle of the chaos one of the bodyguards unleashes his own mysterious power and accidently scatters everyone in the room back in time.
Now with history changing outside the hotel, it falls to John Nighthawk and the Sleeper, Croyd Crenson, to travel back to various points of Chicago’s past and find the people trapped there before the present unravels. But among those who have been sent back are some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, who have decided to change time for their own benefit. Stuck throughout key points of Chicago’s history, can the time travellers be recovered before the present is permanently altered?
Like many of the books in the franchise, Low Chicago is an anthology featuring several short stories that have been combined together into one overarching and interconnected narrative. Each of the short stories is unique and features one or more of the characters sent back in time, or inhabitants of the timeline they encounter. Whilst these short stories all have the same starting plot point, they all have different focuses thanks to that story’s specific characters or time periods. As a result there are several varied stories, each with their own unique features. For example, the story Stripes, by Markos Kloos, features a fantastic narrative about the half-human, half-tiger character Khan being trapped in Chicago in 1929 and getting involved in the events surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Not only is the narrative about an obviously powered individual attempting to influence such an iconic moment in a mob war fun and exciting, but Kloos also includes some significant and heartfelt ethical and emotional decisions that really make you feel for the character of Khan. At the same time, the story Meathooks on Ice is a complex and emotional story from Saladin Ahmed that focuses on a young and troubled Ace, Meathooks, as he attempts to find redemption and his place in the world back in prehistoric times.
In addition to the overarching time travel plot feature, each of these short stories is also connected together by the characters of John Nighthawk and Croyd Crenson, who could be considered the book’s main protagonists. Nighthawk and Crenson either appear in the stories themselves or later interact with a story’s central character in order to resolve the specific storyline. Nighthawk and Crenson are also the main characters of the book’s central storyline, A Long Night at the Palmer House, written by one of the founding authors of Wild Cards, John J. Miller. This central storyline, told from the viewpoint of John Nighthawk, a character created by Miller in a previous book, is broken up into 11 parts and spread between Low Chicago’s other stories. The first part of this storyline features the initial poker game and shows the events leading up to the other characters being sent back in time, while the reminder of this storyline focuses on the protagonists’ attempts to find them. Large portions of this storyline directly tie into Low Chicago’s other short stories, but there are also some sections where they hunt down characters not featured in any of the other short stories. Miller has included some great scenes in this central storyline, and they get particularly compelling when they encounter the results of the other characters meddling in time and they have to discuss the ethical implications of resetting the timeline. One particularly outstanding example of this is a sequence that requires the characters to navigate through and fix up a messed up dystopia caused by one of the runaway Aces.
Despite the different authors and the varied content of Low Chicago’s stories, many of the entries complement each other and fit together really well as a result. Nearly all of the stories contain links to the Wild Cards universe, make full use of Chicago’s rich history, have a comparable dark humour, feature intense action sequences, tell the story in the third person from point of view characters, and have a very similar pace. There is however, one story that doesn’t follow this trend. A Bit of a Dinosaur, by Paul Cornell, stands out from the rest of the entries in Low Chicago, as it breaks from third person narration that the other authors utilised, and is instead written in the first person. Cornell capitalises on this by ramping up the humour in the story and making it a little lighter in tone than the other stories in the book. The first line of A Bit of a Dinosaur, “I think it’s important to say, immediately, that I am no way responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs” really sets the tone for this whole short story and it only gets better from there.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Low Chicago is the rich history of the book’s titular city, Chicago. Throughout all of the short stories, the reader is transported to various periods of Chicago’s history in order to witness several of the most significant events in the city’s past. These include The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the opening of the first Playboy Club, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. All of the authors take significant pains to explore the significance of these events and the impact they had on Chicago and the rest of America. The reader is given a crash course in the history of these proceedings, and also experiences the author’s interpretation of several key historical figures. Many of these events occurred before the 1946 release of the Wild Card virus which removed the Wild Cards universe storyline from real world history, and it is fun to watch these events get altered due to the inclusion of several super-powered beings. It is also extremely fascinating to see the various authors’ interpretations of the historical occurrences that happened after 1946, as they occur in a world where superpowers and mutations are rampant. As a result, the authors have provided some inventive and captivating alterations that will prove to be highly enjoyable for the reader.
Fans of the Wild Cards universe will also love the deep connections that Low Chicago’s stories have with the rest of the franchise. In addition to some interesting and complex new characters, Low Chicago features a huge range of characters who originated in the previous Wild Cards books. There is a deep focus on the history of many of these characters and the readers get to see them placed in a range of unique and compelling situations. In addition, the authors make full use of the overarching time travel storyline as they visit a range of characters who were killed off in previous books or whose main adventures occurred in storylines set many years before 2017. Long-time fans of this series will love the inclusion of or nods to these early characters, especially as several have significant roles in the narrative.
Readers unfamiliar with this series may be slightly overwhelmed at the start of the book, but all of the authors contributing to Low Chicago do an amazing job of providing the relevant exposition and explanation for all the characters and the overall history of the Wild Cards universe. Indeed, Low Chicago might be a perfect book for first time readers of the Wild Cards franchise, as the huge range of characters and the focus on time travel provides the reader with a huge amount of backstory and history that the previous books did not need to contain.
Low Chicago is an outstanding new release that is a sensational and memorable inclusion to one of the best science fiction series currently on the market. It makes incredible use of its distinctive anthology format and the overarching time travel storyline throughout Chicago’s history that is an inspired and marvellous in its execution. Low Chicago really stands out from the rest of the books in the Wild Cards franchise and readers will not be disappointed by this latest offering.