Quick Review – Texas Hold ‘Em edited by George R. R. Martin

Texas Hold 'Em Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 6 November 2019)

Series: Wild Cards series – Book 27

              American Triad trilogy – Book 3

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Texas Hold ’Em is the 27th book in the long-running Wild Cards series, which started in 1987. I read this book late last year but did not get a chance to review it until just now, so I’m just going to do a quick one.

The Wild Cards books make up one of the more interesting book series at the moment. Started by George R. R. Martin and his tabletop game friends (all of whom where fantasy and science fiction writers), this series has since expanded into a massive book franchise that has featured an impressive line-up of authors. There are a huge number of books, and the series is even currently being adapted into a couple of television series on Hulu.

Each of the Wild Cards books is made up of several short, interconnected stories written by a different author, with the entire novel edited together by Martin. Texas Hold ’Em, for example, features the talents of David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Walton Simons, William F. Wu and the late Victor Milán. Melinda M. Snodgrass, who has contributed to a huge number of the previous Wild Cards books, also assisted in editing this book.

I came into this franchise fairly late and have only read the books which make up the most recent trilogy, The American Triad. I quite enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, Mississippi Roll and Low Chicago, and was looking forward to the third and final book, Texas Hold ’Em.

Blurb:

In the aftermath of World War II, the Earth’s population was devastated by a terrifying alien virus. Those who survived changed forever. Some, known as jokers, were cursed with bizarre mental and physical mutations; others, granted superhuman abilities, became the lucky few known as aces.

San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the USA’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. But they are also jokers; kids with super abilities and looks that make them stand out. On top of that, well, they are teenagers – prone to mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.

Ace Michelle Pond, aka The Amazing Bubbles, thinks that her superhero know-how has prepared her to chaperone the event. But little does she know the true meaning of the saying, ‘Don’t mess with Texas’.

I found Texas Hold ‘Em to be a fun addition to this fantastic series. However, unlike the other two Wild Cards books that I have read, this one seemed to be a bit more like a young adult fiction novel. This is mainly because many of the short stories focus on teenage characters as they encounter the many ups and downs of San Antonio and the jazz competition. The rest of the stories are a pretty interesting mix of mystery, thriller and other action adventure type stories, as the various adult characters encounter a range of situations, mostly associated with protecting or wrangling their young charges. There were some good stories within this book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate the return of several recurring characters who have appeared in some of the previous books.

The stories in this book are told in a different way to the previous Wild Cards books. Rather than having several short stories told to their full extent and then connected by one split short story that overlaps with each of them, Texas Hold ’Em is instead broken up by a period of several days. Each of the days contains multiple parts of the various short stories, featuring the events of that story that happens on that day. This is a much more fragmented way to tell each story, but the chronological consistency is an interesting narrative choice. The combined short stories do make for quite a good overall narrative, although it does seem a little lower stakes than some of the previous books in the series.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the examination of prejudice and hatred that infects each of the stories. In this universe, many of the humans who were unaffected by the Wild Card virus discriminate against Jokers and Aces; Jokers because of their disfigurations and Aces because they are afraid of them. This appears to be particularly enhanced down in San Antonio, mainly due to the appearance of the Purity Baptist Church, this universe’s version of everyone’s favourite hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The various protests and prejudices of the fiction group against those affected by the Wild Card virus do reflect the Westboro Baptist Church, so it was definitely an accurate depiction, and it was cool to see how they would react when confronted with someone with superpowers. That being said, the writers really needed to come up with a better term than “God’s Weenies” to refer to this group, or least stop repeating it to the degree that they did. Many of the characters in the book also encounter other forms of discrimination aside from the protests occurring outside the event, most of which mirrored discrimination real-life minority groups experience every day. This was a pretty good look at discrimination, and I liked how the various authors attempted to examine this problem by putting it in the context of the Wild Cards universe, especially as it led to some curious scenarios and interesting story moments.

Overall, this was a great new addition to the Wild Cards series. If I’m going to be honest, this was probably my least favourite book in the American Triad trilogy, but I still had fun reading it. I am interested to see what the next book in the Wild Cards universe will be like, and I will be curious to see if the show I mentioned above actually comes into being.

Low Chicago Edited by George R. R. Martin

Low Chicago Cover.jpg

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.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars