Short Fiction Friday: Two “Wild Cards” Stories From Tor.com

REVIEW SUMMARY: Hot on the heels of a weekend spent at ConQuest 44 in Kansas City, MO, which featured both George R.R. Martin and Artist Guest of Honor John Picacio, I review the latest Wild Cards stories acquired and edited for Tor.com by Martin himself.  Artist John Picacio provides the accompanying art for both novelettes.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the Wild Cards world of Jokers and Aces, two troubled individuals attempt to come to grips with their genetic traits and a world in which they are not entirely welcome.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Each author captures a strong sense of place; characters whose voices fit well; the first story sets up the Wild Cards world for those unfamiliar with the concept.
CONS: Cherie Priest’s story could have stretched on longer for a more fulfilling ending; Paul Cornell’s style was initially jarring until you realize just how well it fits the protagonist he created.
BOTTOM LINE: I am one of the newbies I referred to above.  These two stories were my first foray into the Wild Cards universe and I knew next to nothing about this shared world until I read these stories.  I was drawn to read these because of the serendipity mentioned in the opening and also because I have long been a fan of Priest’s writing and follow Paul Cornell on the SF Squeecast and thus have been curious about his writing.  Both stories are told with the precision and skill of seasoned authors and, as hand-picked representatives of GRRM’s creation, they do a really nice job of making an uniformed reader like me sit up and take notice.  As stand alone stories they each have strengths, but they also have weaknesses that I believe are more a product of being a part of a long-standing series than anything else.  Overall these two stories are a good introduction to the world of the Wild Cards and I suspect fans of the series will have much to like in this new material.

The Elephant in the Room” by Paul Cornell

“My dear,” said my mother, “when your father told me you’d joined the circus and would be turning into an elephant, I had to come over immediately.”

Thus begins the story of Abigail Baker, a woman who has chosen an active and involved life in Jokertown, NYC, a community for those who have been infected with the Wild Cards virus and lived to tell the tale. Abigail’s “power” is that she has the ability to feed off of and use the powers of other Wild Cards around her.

Days before this new and seemingly implausible circus act, Abigail’s mother decides to come to visit, bringing with her the prejudice and condescension that drove Abigail to leave in the first place. On top of the anxiety of a new show and the unwelcome presence of her mother, Abigail must contend with the drama that is sure to ensue the moment her mom steps in the door and discovers that her daughter has a steady boyfriend, Croyd, who also has powers of his own.

I admittedly stumbled around in the beginning of Cornell’s narrative, unused to the widespread use of commas and the long-running sentence structure.  Abigail is telling her story to an audience, the reader, and is doing so in a conversational, breathless pace that caused a bit of distraction.  I soon discovered that this narrative voice was entirely in keeping  with the character that Paul Cornell had created and once that dawned on me I was suddenly very impressed with what he had accomplished. Prior to that revelation I kept hearing Cornell’s voice in my head.  I later realized that once I accepted who Abigail was and that this was her voice, I was hearing a female voice in my head. Brilliant!

Cornell spends part of his story weaving in an explanation of the Wild Cards virus and the slang that has become a part of this shared universe.  Priest’s story was actually published on Tor.com before this story but I chose to feature this one first in the review because, of the two, this is where I would recommend starting if you are not familiar with this world.  Long-time fans can judge whether or not Cornell spends too much time on this, but from my vantage point I feel he walked that fine line between rehashing too much and grounding his tale in the context of the greater world.

Being a novelette-length story, Cornell has time to weave a number of different story elements together.  In addition to the conflicted mother-daughter relationship there is an ever-present mystery regarding Croyd, his powers, and Abigail’s intuition that something dangerous is bubbling under the surface.  Also a mystery is the elephant-reference that starts the story and the upcoming circus performance that brought her mother to New York City in the first place.  “The Elephant in the Room” is such a telling title and it touches on multiple facets in this story.  In addition to the relationships of the principle characters, Cornell paints a picture of prejudice and segregation, fear and judgment regarding those infected with the virus and those who are not.  I suspect this is a thread that ties this story to many others in the Wild Cards universe.  It certainly does with Priest’s story.

As I read Cornell’s story I could not help but think of Charles de Lint’s Newford series.  Like De Lint, Cornell manages to feature characters with real-world problems, characters who have been damaged by the abuse and neglect of others around them, who often manage to spotlight the hope and beauty in even the worst situations.  I respect De Lint’s ability to make readers think differently about the lost and downtrodden and Paul Cornell is successful in that venture with this story.

MY RATING:

The Button Man and the Murder Tree” by Cherie Priest

Chicago, 1971

Sammy Ricca poured himself a slug the color of old honey, spilling hardly any of it. He lifted the glass to his mouth, and the cheap whiskey rippled as he tapped it with his upper lip, pretending to drink it. He peered through the blurry amber at a tall, lean shadow in a gray suit, and he said, “I heard they were using that old tree again. Word’s getting around.”

Raul, the button man, is the protagonist in this gritty story that is deeply infused with a classic noir vibe. Raul is a hit man for a local boss, sent in to do a thankless and sometimes disheartening job. As the reader is introduced to the titular character, he is about to finish his latest assignment and something appears to be happening to his body, causing a level of discomfort that causes his intended victim to inquire about his health. Once the job is done the camera follows Raul to the staff bathroom off the kitchen of a local restaurant where he is known. Once there the reader discovers just what is causing Raul his discomfort, and the reason behind the story’s title.

Raul is a victim of the Wild Cards virus and appears to have inherited one of the more useless traits. When you have to take a knife to yourself on a consistent basis to maintain the facade of normality, life is not all it could be. As the night wears on Raul finds himself at the aforementioned murder tree, and the latest name to be added to the list is one with the kind of personal connection that leaves Raul hoping he will not be given that assignment.

Cherie Priest does not spend time orienting the reader into the Wild Cards universe. Instead her story is brimming with noir atmosphere and she writes in such a way that the reader can glean from the context some of the details of this universe while those familiar with these stories are able to get swept up directly into the plight of the button man. The story opens by telling us the year is 1971, but this feels like it could be set many decades in the past. Priest’s ability to creative an immersive experience for the reader is on display in this story.

Raul is an interesting character and as the tension slowly builds, and revelations of exactly what is going on start to come to light, the reader finds themselves in a place of sympathy towards this hired killer and may in fact be rooting for his success. Overall I thought the story was well told. I had initially rated this story a half star down because I felt that the end could have been extended slightly for a more satisfying conclusion. But as I wrote this review I found myself focusing on so many things that I liked about it, and Priest’s ability to create a tangible noir atmosphere alone is worthy of a higher rating.

MY RATING:

Note: Both stories are available for free on the Tor.com website. Simply click on the story titles to follow the links.


Artist John Picacio created the images for both Wild Cards stories. Picacio has won multiple awards for his illustrations including his first Hugo win, for Best Professional Artist, at the 2012 Hugo Awards, becoming only the 17th artist in history to win in that category. He is currently nominated in the Best Professional Artist category for the 2013 Hugo Awards.

In addition to his ongoing cover illustration work, John Picacio has recently started his own company, Lone Boy. His first project was a Kickstarter for the 2013 calendar and he is currently at work on his own personal re-imagining of Loteria. Loteria is Mexican bingo, played with a set of 54 cards, each of which have an icon important to the culture. John Picacio hopes to have the full set completed and ready for sale sometime in 2014. For more information about Loteria and examples of his work on this project, please visit the Lone Boy web site.