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.

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol 32: Mysteries by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Mysteries Cover.jpg

Publisher: Dark Horse Books

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

After a year I have finally gotten the new volume of Usagi Yojimbo, one of my favourite long-running comic series.  Now I and other fans of the long-eared samurai can finally enjoy another set of exhilarating adventures in Stan Sakai’s version of feudal Japan.

Usagi Yojimbo is a great series that has been running since 1987, three years after the character was originally created.  In a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, the series is set in the early Edo period of Japanese history, during the time of the Shogun and the wandering samurai.  The series was originally supposed to feature human characters and a protagonist based on the famous historical samurai Miyamoto Musashi.  However, the series was changed to feature animals after the artist drew an early version of the hero with rabbit ears and created the series’ titular yojimbo, Miyamoto Usagi.

Usagi Photo 2

The Usagi Yojimbo series follows the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi through feudal Japan.  After the death of his lord, Usagi has become a ronin, a masterless samurai, and has spent the last few years wandering the country seeking employment as a yojimbo, a bodyguard.  Throughout his travels, Usagi finds all sorts of danger and adventures, and is often drawn into a range of conflicts throughout the troubled landscape, facing threats both natural and supernatural in origin.

With 32 collected editions over 30 years, as well as the two additional graphic novels and the spin-off series, Space Usagi, Usagi Yojimbo has developed a dedicated fanbase.  Those who have not read this series may be familiar with it due to its frequent crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Characters from both franchises have crossed over into each other’s respective comic book series several times.  In addition, Usagi has appeared in all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television shows, often with some side characters.  One of my first exposures to the characters of Usagi Yojimbo was during The Big Brawl arch of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.

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Stan Sakai’s series is a hybrid of western graphic novels and Japanese manga.  The style and format of the comics come across as more of a classic western style, but the story content and the series’ art is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and history.  Every issue is filled with incredible depictions of Japanese customs, history, folklore and mythology, and includes realistic and historically accurate illustrations of feudal Japanese weapons, clothes and buildings.  In addition, the dialogue includes a number of Japanese words which are translated in text, and the characters are all named using traditional Japanese naming conventions, with the family name presented before the given name.

Mysteries is the 32nd collected edition of this series, and contains issues #159-#165 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  These issues see Usagi reunited with his friend Inspector Ishida as they investigate a series of mysteries in Ishida’s jurisdiction.  There are four main stories, including The Hatamoto’s Daughter, Death by Fugu, the two-part series The Body in the Library and the three-part series Mouse TrapMysteries also contains two of the shorter Chibi Usagi stories that Sakai writes with his wife, Julie, which feature cute versions the franchise’s characters.

Readers of the latest volume of Usagi Yojimbo are in for another visual treat as Sakai continues to highlight the delicate beauty of the Japanese landscape and fantastic architecture of its towns with his spectacular artwork.  Each of the portrayals of the anthropomorphic characters in their period accurate clothing is amazing, and the reader will be astounded by the author’s desire to make his comic as aesthetically realistic as possible.  However, the real visual highlights of this comic are the action sequences that see the protagonists engage in a series of elaborate sword fights against a variety of opponents.  The artistic styling of these sword fights is both exciting and intricate, which allows the reader to imagine how these battles would occur in real life.  Mysteries contains some great examples of this series’ fantastic art form, and the reader will love the creativity that inhabits every panel of this book.

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While most Usagi Yojimbo stories are standalone episodes, the separate stories featured within Mysteries share several connections with each other.  All of them are set within the same town and feature the character of Inspector Ishida.  In addition, several of the cases are connected by a shadowy crime boss, although the full nature of this connection isn’t fully known until the final story in the volume.

As you may be able to guess from the title of the volume, all of the main stories featured within Mysteries feature a murder and the following investigation by Inspector Ishida and Usagi.  Inspector Ishida is a high-ranking member of the Shogun’s police and is renowned throughout Japan as one of country’s most effective detectives.  Usagi has teamed up with him before in a number of adventures, including a great story, Murder at the Inn, back in Volume 29, which featured Usagi, Ishida, and Usagi’s frequent companion Gen investigating murders in a locked-down inn.  There are some great stories in the Mysteries volume, especially as Sakai has crafted together some intriguing mysteries in such short entries.  Several of the big mysteries and crime stories are connected into an elaborate overarching narrative that examines the criminal underworld of feudal Japan.  Two of the stories feature some really complex murder mysteries that flit back and forth between a number of suspects and contain motives that are very unique.  The final entry, Mousetrap, is the longest story in the volume and features an excellent tale about a thief getting caught in a middle of a fight to control the area’s organised crime and the sinister figure that has been manipulating the events of the previous stories.

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Sakai ensures that his examination of feudal Japanese society carries through to each of these stories and their investigative arcs, affecting the characters’ investigations.  For example, only members of a lower caste are allowed to touch the murder victims’ dead bodies, which hinders the protagonists from properly examining the bodies to work out the cause of death.  There is also a fantastic investigation of the role of the inspectors in feudal Japan and how they bear the authority of the Shogun.  It also allows Ishida to show off his fighting skills with the jitte, one of my favourite Japanese weapons.

In addition to the returning Inspector Ishida, this volume of Usagi Yojimbo sees the return of several characters from previous stories.  Our favourite thieving duo of Kitsune and Kiyoko make a return in the middle story, The Body in the Library.  The fox thief Kitsune was first introduced in 1992 and has become one the series’ main recurring characters, adding significant amusement to the stories she appears in through her schemes, humour and continued casual theft of the other characters’ valuables.  Her young companion, Kiyoko, was introduced in a later story and serves as her apprentice in the life of crime while taking up many of her mentor’s bad habits.  Their inclusion in this story adds significant comic relief to an otherwise dark story of murder, and it is always fun to see what this mischievous duo are up to.  The mysterious masked thief Nezumi returns for a second adventure and is a major player in the book’s longest story, Mouse Trap.  Nezumi was introduced in the Volume 20 story After the Rat, and acts as a public Robin Hood character in Inspector Ishida’s town.  He is used to great effect in this new story, being framed for murder in a way reminiscent of his first appearance in the series.  Sakai continues to taunt his audience with the mystery of Nezumi’s identity and motives, and it is great to see this interesting and formidable character interact with Usagi for the first time, especially with their differing definitions of honour.  Readers should also keep an eye out for a certain recurring snitch who has played a similar role in a number of prior Usagi stories, despite the main characters failing to remember how treacherous he is.

One of the best parts of the Usagi Yojimbo series is the incorporation of intriguing and unique parts of Japanese culture into amazing action based comic issues.  Throughout the series, the author has utilised a number of great Japanese cultural elements in various stories, including giant kites, giant drums, pottery, swordsmithing, tea ceremonies, seaweed farming, games of chance and a huge number of mythological creatures and legends.  These stories often contain descriptions and informative depictions of the cultural activities in question, and the author works them into a fun adventure or creative mystery.  Mysteries contains two of these stories.  The main one, Death by Fugu, focuses on the preparation of fugu, the meat of the poisonous pufferfish.  This story contains an excellent description of what fugu is and the preparation required to eat it.  Death by Fugu is a powerful and tragic tale that prominently uses the art of fugu in its mystery, and definitely one of this volume’s standout stories.  The other entry, The Body in the Library, takes a brief look at the examination and trade of western medicines in Japan.  While this is not examined in as much detail, it is a fascinating to see what impact western medicines could have in feudal Japan and to see it used as a motive for a series of murders.

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Once again Stan Sakai has produced a powerful and fantastic new volume of his iconic Usagi Yojimbo series.  Fans of this series can look forward to seeing Sakai’s iconic art style and detailed cultural insights that are a love letter to Japan and its fascinating history and society.  Mysteries contains a range of outstanding new stories, and readers will enjoy unwrapping their mysteries with Usagi and the fan favourite Inspector Ishida.  I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year for the next volume of this amazing series.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Low Chicago Edited by George R. R. Martin

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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

Nights of the Living Dead edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry

Nights of the Living Dead Cover

Publisher: Duckworth

Australian Publication Date – 1 December 2017

World Publication Date – 11 July 2017

 

In 1968, the late, great, George A. Romero created one of the most iconic films in horror movie history, Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead has had many lasting impacts in the world of film, but one of the most significant things it did was to firmly enforce the terror of the zombie into the public consciousness and set the rules for all future zombie works.

Since that day, zombies have dominated people’s minds and pop culture in all its forms.  From movies to television and comic books, zombie stories infest modern fiction.  The introduction of zombies has also influenced the world of literature, with many prominent authors producing some incredible and varied works of zombie fiction.  From World War Z to Warm Bodies, these bestsellers have enthralled the world, with many serving as inspiration for other mediums.

One significant piece of zombie literature published in 1989 was Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.  Book of the Dead was an anthology of short stories based on the zombie apocalypse premise introduced in Night of the Living Dead.  With a foreword by Romero himself and bringing together original stories from a large number of prominent horror authors, including Stephen King, this iconic book is considered one of the first pieces of zombie literature.  It produced two follow up anthologies, Still Dead and Mondo Zombie.

Now, the concept of a zombie anthology book has again been resurrected in Nights of the Living Dead, edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry.

Nights of the Living Dead contains 20 new and unique stories from a distinguished group of authors.  Each of these stories is set in a world forever changed by a zombie apocalypse and shows the horror through the eyes of a range of different survivors enduring a number of different scenarios.  Police, doctors, murderers, white supremacists, scientists and showmen all examine different sides of the classic zombie apocalypse.  Many of the stories are set in more contemporary times, exploring how people in 2017 would react to this phenomenon while also allowing some commentary of current social issues.

Fans of the original movie may also be interested in several stories set during the events of the film.  The connection that some of these stories have to Night of the Living Dead is somewhat minor, with the stories merely being set in the same year, thus allowing the reader to assume they are set during the same outbreak.  Other stories have a far more significant connection to the events of the movie.  John Russo’s story is a direct sequel to the movie and follows some of the posse that played a significant part in the end of the film.  Another story, by Isaac Marion, is told from the perspective of a minor character in the film, Karen Cooper, and features her dramatic and eventually violent interactions with other characters in the movie.

Perhaps one of the best features of Nights of the Living Dead is the sheer talent that has been gathered together to write this book.  Numbered among the contributors are some of the most influential writers of zombie fiction, including both of the Night of the Living Dead’s original screenwriters, Romero and Russo.  The other writers include multiple Bram Stroker Award winners, such as editor Jonathan Maberry, whose contribution to zombie culture includes working on the Marvel Zombies series.  Many of the authors have their own zombie fiction novels and series, including Isaac Marion, writer of Warm Bodies, Briane Keene, author of The Rising, and Mira Grant, author of the Newsflesh series.  The list of contributors also includes people who have worked on zombie comics and television shows, including one of the writers and co-creators of Z-Nation, Craig Engler.

The various contributions to the anthology allow the reader to enjoy a range of zombie stories which may appeal to different people.  Personal favourites include David Wellington’s short story set around the International Space Station and Mira Grant’s emotional tale set in a zoo.  Other great stories includes Craig Engler’s tale of vigilante justice in a world of zombies and a new original contribution by George A. Romero, which also takes the time to examine racism in more modern times.  Readers may also be interested in the forewords from Romero and Maberry, which examine their experiences with the movie and how it has influenced zombie culture for the last 50 years.

Nights of the Living Dead is an exciting anthology series that presents the reader with 20 new and unique stories from some of the leading minds in zombie fiction.  With a range of different and exciting stories of the zombie apocalypse, many with ties to the original movie, this is a must-read book for all fans of zombie fiction and the man who inspired it all.

My Rating:

Four stars