This is the newest installment in the decades-long-running series called Wild Cards; this is either the 24th or 27th book depending on whether you count the ebooks and graphic novel.
For those of you who have not yet encountered Martin’s Wild Cards universe, here’s a brief background: in the 1940s, some aliens decided to use Earth as a proving ground for a virus designed to create super-powered humans. The virus was released over New York City and can have one of four effects: mostly normal-appearing but super-powered known as Aces; mostly normal-appearing with a less-than-impressive superpower known as Deuces, a completely non-human, deformed appearance known as Jokers or death by drawing a Black Queen. The stories have followed different groups of characters since the 1940s. The series is unique in that each story is a composite done by several authors; it is not an anthology, it is a complete novel.
In the history of this series, most stories are tied together in story arcs of two to four books. I think there were two previous novels that stood alone as does this one. At least, I suspect this one will stand alone. It is, by far, the weakest book to come out of this long-running series; which I desperately hope to be an anomaly.
The story takes place on a Mississippi River steamboat. The steamboat was built by the Leathers family who plied the river for generations; it now functions as a tourist attraction ferrying folk up and down the river. The boat is haunted by a spectre of its last Captain Leathers Wilbur Leathers who accidently killed someone in 1951 and seems doomed to haunt the boat forever, unable to leave. Wilbur watches events unfold in the tiny space of the Natchez and despairs of ever learning what became of his beloved wife and infant son who left the boat and never returned after his apparent demise. The book is a series of small stories that revolve around the passengers on the Natchez’s last voyage. The over-arching story is about a small group of Joker refugees from the Kazakhstan horror of the previous three novels. The refugee ship is stopped at the mouth of the Mississippi and in the ensuing bureaucratic tangle and overt violence, a small group of Jokers are rescued from the ship and hidden aboard the Natchez. The JADL, a Joker defense league, has arranged sanctuary for the Jokers at various cities along the Natchez’s northernly journey…but they have to evade the attention of the Immigration and Customs agents searching for the missing Jokers. The cast includes many familiar faces like Billy Ray and Angel and the Infamous Black Tongue and his love, Olena, but they have a very brief time onstage; their stories obviously waiting for a future novel.
Wilbur, being an insubstantial person unless he can “fill” himself with steam, is able to drift around the boat and be party to private conversations and observe events unseen. One group of passengers is an online show that purports to investigate hauntings and they are there to find “Steam Wilbur”, the famous haint of the Natchez. There is a pair of insurance investigators who are there to confirm the accidental death of a young woman on the boat and we get a small murder mystery in the mix, which takes up most of the pages. The murder seems inconsequential to the story arc until you realize it was only a plot device to have the pair onboard to assist with the refugees. We are treated to a much older Sewer Jack who is currently employed as bartender on the boat; but, again, his story is small and he is only there for a pivotal scene.
In addition to trying to save the Jokers, the book concerns itself with Wilbur and his impending doom. Wilbur is unable to leave the environs of the boat; as he has tried to do many times over the decades. But he has made his peace with that and takes enjoyment from the journeys up and down the Mississippi. But this will be the last voyage; the current consortium of owners has decided to dock the boat in Cincinnati and turn it into a casino. Without steam, Wilbur has no way of communicating with anyone and will spend an apparent eternity haunting a casino instead of his beloved river. And, more tellingly, he will never ever have a chance of seeing his lost wife and son again. Both he and the current Captain are desperate to find a way to keep the boat on the river and the motives of the consortium become very suspect.
In the history of this series, the story arcs have been intense and complex and completely satisfying. But this one falls dismally short in my opinion. It was insubstantial much like Wilbur and while it gave tiny tidbits of loose ends being tied up (from the previous novels), none of it mattered in the end. I may be wrong about it being a standalone as the fate of rest of the Jokers on the refugee ship and their protectors, Infamous Black Tongue and Olena, is unresolved. But this novel won’t be a contributing factor; nor is there any need to continue Wilbur’s story.
The narrative was competently written, as none of the contributing authors are amateurs, but they just didn’t have a lot of good material with which to work. The characters were still fun to hear but, aside from Wilbur, none of them had a lot to do. So, while this installment was a disappointment, I am not deserting the series. I just have to hope they get back in the groove before the next book is written. ~~ Catherine Book
Contributing authors are:
John Jos. Miller
David D. Levine
Kevin Andrew Murphy
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