Inside Straight is the first new Wild Cards Novel in a couple of years, and the two before it really didn’t catch my attention and I have not read them. Like a number of the other novels, Inside Straight a ‘Mosaic’ Novel, which means that a core collection of authors all worked on various parts of the novel, working to create a master whole. It’s a cross between a collection of connected short stories and a true novel that one or two people write.
For those that haven’t heard of Wild Cards before, I strongly recommend this link. But in short, back at the end of World War II there was a major event where a alien virus got released in the world. The virus is called ‘Wild Card’ and what it does is create a Major change in how the human genome works. At the initial exposure, a human could be dealt a number of different ‘hands’. In one of them, nothing will happen, in another collection of people something minor will happen, this is called a ‘Deuce’. The majority will be dealt the ‘Black Queen’ and be horribly disfigured and hopefully they will die. The next most common result is a ‘Joker’. These are very similar to the Black Queen but the person lives and has been changed in manners strange and bizarre but somehow can survive and function. Usually they become shunned and become the poor and downtrodden.
The final sort of ‘hand’ one can be dealt is to become an ‘Ace’. This means you get some fantastical power(s) that can do amazing and defy logic, laws of the universe, and are the ones that one would consider ‘super heroes’ (or villains).
Inside Straight is set in modern day, in a world that has had ‘Wild Card’ affected people, invasions of aliens, and many other things happen since the fatefull day that the world was first exposed. But the world is not so different from our own, and there are reality shows. This novel follows the story of a Reality Show called ‘American Heroes’ and starts with the usual auditions, before 28 ‘aces’ form four hands (Hearts, Diamonds, Spades and Clubs) to compete to become the next ‘Amerian Hero’. (Learn about the contestants here!) It’s told from the point of view of several of the contestants, including Johnathan Hive, the blogger/journalist that can turn into a swarm of wasps; Drummer Boy, a seven-foot tall, six-armed rockstar joker drummer of the band Joker Plague; The Amazing Bubbles, a former teen model whose card turned and made her able to turn any impact into her into mass in her own body (fat) that she can then ‘bubble’ out to make explosive effects: Stuntman, a african-american athleate that was too smart for sports… his card turned during film school and he became able to ‘bounceback’ from any injury (much like a certain cheerleader we all know now); Earth Witch, a woman who can only ‘dig ditches’ and learn she can do a lot more… and many other unique characters.
This is quite a book, and the Reality Show is only part of the wrapper for the story, it also involves conflict in Egypt and what it really means to be a hero. It’s well written, but often is more deep than many people expect a book about ‘super heroes’ to be. These are not comic book heroes. They are not characters from some super hero MMO. They seem a lot more real if a little strange and over the top at times. This isn’t a book for people that want light-hearted entertainment, as this book, while often a little irreverent and satirical, is very serious and deals with what seems, to this reader, to be very real issues if the modern world had real super powers in it.
All in all I greatly enjoyed this ‘Wild Cards’ novel, almost more than I have the prior books set in the same universe. It resonates better with today and echoes our times better. It asks the hard questions and doesn’t pull punches even when it’s characters might. I greatly look forward to the sequel, Busted Flush, that is already out in hardback, when it comes to paperback. And it was good to see Steve Perrin’s character, Digger Downs, as a Reality Show judge.