Monday, March 02, 2009

Book Review: Busted Flush (Edited by George R. R. Martin)

"What?" Ray asked.
"Four dead state troopers have been found on Interstate 70 outside Alamogordo.  They were pretty badly mangled.  One seemed partially eaten."
"Sharky," Justice said quietly as Norwood grimaced in disgust.
Ray nodded.  "Sounds like a clue to me.  Where, exactly?"
"I've got a map reference," Pendergast said, noting some figures down on a notepad, which he handed to Ray.  Ray accepted the pad with one hand while hitting his cell phone's speed dial with the other.  He knew that they needed to run this down fast and he knew who to contact for help.  Lady Black was in charge of the team securing the blast site down in Texas, and she had a bunch of aces with her.
"Ray," he said.
"Yes, Mr. Ray."
"Since when have I been 'Mr. Ray' to you, Joann?" he asked.
"Since you got to be the Man, Mr. Ray."
"Let's have this pissing contest later," Ray said.  "I'm at BICC right now, but we're headed for Alamogordo.  We're going to need Moon.  Can you spare her, and someone to bring her?"
"Are you asking or ordering?  Sir?"
Restraining himself, Ray answered, "Asking."
There was a short silence.  "I suppose."
"Fine," he said.  "Thanks."
"You're welcome.  Sir."
Ray broke contact, suppressing a sigh.  More shit to clean up.  He never thought that he'd piss off an old comrade like Lady Black.  They'd both been in SCARE a long time, and she'd wanted the directorate herself.  Truth was, Ray knew she'd be a better director than him, but he wasn't in human resources.  It wasn't his job to make everyone happy.  Suddenly, he looked at Pendergast and smiled.
"Pack your knapsack and slip into your Birkenstocks, Doc.  We're going to Alamogordo."  He turned to Justice.  "Get in touch with local and state law enforcement.  Give them descriptions of all escapees, but tell them they're not to approach if they're spotted.  We don't need any more half-eaten state troopers.  Just relay any info about sightings to us."
--Excerpt from Busted Flush
I admit my ignorance of this series.  I've heard of it before, but I came into Busted Flush blind, not knowing the world or the characters that had been established over the books that preceded it.  On the one hand this was a good thing:  it allowed me to have a perspective not biased by having read the previous books.  On the other hand, perhaps it was a bad thing, because many of the characters that seem to be recurring ones had histories I didn't fully understand; the world, too, was fuzzy until about halfway through.  This won't be a problem for folks who've already read the previous books--and probably not that big a deal for folks who haven't--but it was certainly something I noticed coming in.
Busted Flush is a mosaic novel, with each story penned by a different author and strung together by George R. R. Martin.  It takes place in a world where an alien virus called the "Wild Card" has spread across the globe, sparking a variety of genetic changes that give some super powers and others debilitating or downright disturbing mutations.  Set some time in the future, Busted Flush tells the story of a world that has come to grips with its proliferation of "aces" (the superheroes) and "jokers" (the half-human others) and now struggles to survive as global warming wreaks havoc across the globe, shortages of oil spark wars and assassinations, and previously unstable regions are now engaged in active war, slaughtering and killing innocents by the thousands.  The United Nations is in charge of keeping the peace, using the Committee (a group of "aces") to resolve conflicts, protect innocents, and rescue people from the increasingly dangerous storms battering the coasts.  Dark and scary all that may be, but the Committee has bigger fish to fry when greedy bids for oil begin to circumvent the call for justice, a mysterious boy who can cause nuclear explosions becomes the centerpiece for a massive political struggle between nations, and people once thought to be friends or allies turn out to be something else.
One of the interesting things about this particular installment of the Wild Cards series is that it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to discussing the ethical issues surrounding the introduction of an unpredictable array of mutations.  Busted Flush shows what the world can be like when people willingly subject themselves to medical examination, or when they are forced into medical study.  On top of that, I think the chilling vision of a world where global warming is not contested, but a firm reality, and the chaos that ensues as a result is not only relevant to today's world, but perhaps somewhat telling of the fictional community in general.  This isn't a novel trying to relay a message so much as relay the reality of what will happen if that message, presented by someone else, is flat-out ignored.
Most of the characters are interesting, if not downright cool.  There are a few lame ducks--who are made fun of by other characters for being so--but for the most part the cast has a range of strengths and weakness that are altogether, well, human.  One person may be virtually indestructible, but also entirely capable of breaking down mentally at any moment.  This is a good touch, I think, and deviates from the all-too-common flawless superhero.  Think Hancock, only better and deeper.  I especially liked Genetrix, who is capable of giving birth to her children almost immediately (as eggs through her tail), who are each born with their own powers and mutations--the problem being that her children have extraordinarily short lifespans.  I would like to see more of her in the future.
I had some issues with the middle portions of Busted Flush.  It all felt a tad drawn out, like there wasn't enough story to tell to begin with, and the only recourse was to shove in more characters, more POVs, and more subplots.  While I understand that this is a mosaic novel with multiple writers contributing to the same general story arc, I felt like there was too much going on by the middle and that it was hard to care about all of the characters whose POVs I was following.  The novel probably could have benefited from pairing down the multiple POVs, dropping characters that may have added something, but weren't adding anything necessarily significant, and generally trying to stick to the major story arc.  I love me some subplots, but I think there's a limit.  Granted, this is part of a series and the next novel will probably close some of these subplots.  Additionally, some of the writing within the novel is overly simplistic or, well, not very good.  Most of the authors are rather accomplished and are capable of pulling off excellent dialogue and description, but others seem like they're still learning how to do this whole writing thing.  Thankfully there are more accomplished writers than unaccomplished ones.
What Busted Flush has problems doing it makes up for in action and suspense.  Much of the story centers around conflicts on an international scale, with many of the "aces" spending their time battling with rogue "aces" and their armies or with themselves.  For an action novel, Busted Flush succeeds, making sure that the reader is entertained with well-written fight scenes and building tension.  Past readers will probably enjoy this as much as the previous books, and new readers will probably be equally as entertained--unless they don't like superhero stories.  Overall I enjoyed Busted Flush.  It was a decent read and had some interesting characters I'm glad to have met.
For more information about the Wild Cards universe, check out the website.


Charles Gramlich said...

I had a mild interest but I never got into the Wild Card's Universe stuff. I know there were some good writers working in the area but somehow i just never got around to digging in.

SQT said...

I tried to read this but couldn't really get into it. I wasn't sure if it was because I hadn't read the earlier ones or the disjointed nature of multiple authors.

furiousBall said...

this doesn't seem like something i could dig into either