LitStack Review: High Stakes – A Wild Cards Novel edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass

by Sharon Browning

High Stakes:  A Wild Cards Novel
George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass, editors
Tor Books
Release Date:  August 30, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-3562-3

In 1983, author George R. R. Martin was given a birthday gift:  SuperWorld, a roleplaying game. For two years, he and his Albuquerque gaming circle obsessed over building characters that then interacted to create imaginative and dynamic stories. Eventually, since many in the group were authors, the thought was to bring these characters to a larger audience and the shared world anthologies of the Wild Cards novels were born.

Set largely during an alternate history of post-World War II United States, the series follows humans who contracted the Wild Card virus, an alien virus that rewrites DNA and mutates survivors; those who acquire minor or crippling physical conditions are known as Jokers, and those who acquire superhuman abilities are known as Aces.*

High Stakes marks the 23rd publication of the Wild Cards world, the ending of a story arc which includes 2011’s Fort Freak and 2014’s Lowball (more novels are in the works, and Universal Cable Productions has acquired the rights to adapt the series for TV). The authors who contributed the major players in this novel include David Anthony Durham, Stephen Leigh, John Jos. Miller, Melinda Snodgrass, Caroline Spector and Ian Tregillis, with character input by many additional authors, including (of course) George R. R. Martin, himself.

Before talking about High Stakes, let me assure you that it is not necessary to have read the other two books in the story arc – or actually, any of the other Wild Card books – in order to immerse yourself in this story.  I myself had only read one other Wild Cards novel previously (the 2015 re-release of Aces Abroad), and although I went back and read Lowball after reading High Stakes (which was actually kind of fun – like an extended flashback), I didn’t feel that High Stakes was diminished by my not being fully vested in the series.

And oh, my, even on its own, High Stakes packs a powerful – and visceral – punch!

Here’s the jacket synopsis:

Officer Francis Black of Fort Freak, vigilante joker Marcus “The Infamous Black Tongue” Morgan, and ace thief Mollie “Tesseract” Steunenberg get stuck in Talas, Kazakhstan. There, the coldblooded Baba Yaga forces jokers into an illegal fighting ring, but her hidden agenda is much darker: her fighters’ deaths serve to placate a vicious monster from another dimension. When the last line of defense against this world weakens, all hell breaks loose, literally….

The Committee in New York sends a team of aces to investigate. One by one, each falls victim to evil forces–including the dark impulses within themselves. Only the perseverance of the most unlikely of heroes has a chance of saving the world before utter chaos erupts on Earth.

Which pretty much sums up the main action of the story – but there’s so much more to it than that.

High Stakes is a true horrowshow – and I mean that both literally and in the Anthony Burgess-ian sense of “very good” in its horror.  There are incredibly dark things going on in this novel that will make even the most hardened reader shudder, but since this is an in-your-face, grisly end of the world scenario, it’s appropriate and effective to have so many heinous things happening to – and because of – redshirts, bit players and main characters, alike. It’s exciting and powerful, but definitely not for the faint of heart.

Iit’s not all violence and slime and corruption, though! There is a very humane element running throughout the text; the “high stakes” of the title not only pertains to the impact of this attempted takeover of the world, but also in how the personal lives of each character is affected, by threat to those they love, by corruption of their own minds, by the heavy weight of responsibility against overwhelming odds, by the horror of what they have done and what they must do. Having a super power does not render one immune to the effects of this horrorshow; in fact, they can be even more deadly when compromised.

My favorite character is Officer Francis “Franny” Black, a “nat” (re: natural, not affected by the virus) whose investigation prior to the events of High Stakes has landed him smack dab in the middle of the brutality. He has no super powers, no insight into why the world has gone mad, yet when given a chance to escape the carnage, he remains, not only because it’s his job but because he knows that the fate of the world rests on him and others like him. It’s pretty potent stuff.

What didn’t work for me was the “mosaic” aspect of this novel. Unlike other books in the series that utilize POV chapters, in High Stakes “chapters” are broken into individual days with a cadre of characters voicing their stories throughout each day; successive narratives are often barely a page long, yet cycle through the same voices numerous times. I found these constant shifts choppy and disruptive, dragging at the forward progress of the action. While I appreciate the challenges of editing material from many different contributors and suspect that this format allowed for greater numbers of authors to be involved, I craved more sustained continuity and a respite from the reiteration that all these jumps employed.

Still, the power of the story in High Stakes cannot be over-emphasized. Too often end-of-the-world scenarios seem to have a foregone conclusion and therefore lack tension – that certainly is not the case here! It really does feel like Armageddon has arrived, and the devastation is deeper and more personal than one normally reads in these kinds of stories. Yet isn’t that exactly when we need heroes the most?

Exhilarating, terrifying, emotional and gruesome, High Stakes will take you on one heck of a thrill ride.  Be ready!

~ Sharon Browning

* Taken from the Wild Cards Wikipedia page. Forgive me, but this seemed to be as good of a summary as I could have come up with.

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