Catching Up With George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards

The Wild Cards saga is vast at this point, and may seem like an intimidating fictional milieu to attempt entering. We fans have known for years that a deep dive into the series’ complex continuity is well worth the effort, and the rewards are myriad. Still, a stack of 28 novels (and counting) is surely daunting for even a more-voracious-than-average reader. A few notes might be helpful in removing the intimidation factor inherent to a continuing literary serial comprising more than 10,000 pages, featuring a couple hundred characters, and crafted by more than 40 different authors (collectively known as the Wild Cards consortium).

What Is It?

The series is what’s sometimes called a “shared world”—i.e., a single fictional universe to which a multitude of different writers can contribute characters, concepts and narratives. Though the authors and the fans tend to refer to every book as a novel, many Wild Cards volumes are more along the lines of an anthology: a collection of short stories by different authors, albeit always tightly linked. A quintessential example is Vol. 4: Aces Abroad. This book’s premise involves a group of delegates participating in an around-the-world tour. Each individual story is by a different writer; focuses on a different member of the delegation; and, furthermore, is set in a different country from the tales that precede or follow. Thus, Aces Abroad is inarguably a short story anthology – yet its interconnected nature gives it the depth and breadth of a single novel. The best of both worlds, one might argue.

The Premise

The Wild Cards novels are set in what is recognizably our world, but a version wherein history diverged beginning in the year 1946. On September 15th of that year, an alien genetic virus was unleashed upon the planet, forever transforming humanity. From that day forward, anyone infected with what was dubbed the “wild card” virus had the potential to become a malformed mutant, or to develop a superhuman ability – or both, in many instances.

The Slang

Each new volume tends to catch the reader up on the card-playing parlance associated with the wild card virus, but here’s a handy guide anyway.

An “ace” is a person who possesses a superpower (or several); the term can also be applied to the talent itself, e.g. “Her ace was the ability to shoot lasers from her fingertips.”

A deuce is essentially an ace, but the superhuman power in question is perhaps not the most potent or impressive. The ability to bring water to a boil telekinetically, for example.

A joker is someone whose body was twisted by the virus. Joker mutations can often be painful, and are generally considered unsightly. That said, occasionally a joker “deformity” is beautiful or somehow physically impressive.

The term “black queen” denotes death via wild card; essentially this is a “joker” mutation, but one so extreme as to be fatal – i.e., the bones of one’s skeleton enlarging to the point where they break free of the skin containing them.

The recent novel Vol. 27: Knaves Over Queens has given us a new classification: In Wild Cards Britain, the term “knave” refers to someone who is a joker in terms of aesthetics, but nonetheless possessed of a power that would put them in the “ace” category. (In Wild Cards America, one will occasionally see the term “joker-ace” used to describe such folks.)

There are also the “latents” — whom the virus has infected but who are still waiting for it to express, for better or for worse.

Aces, deuces, jokers and latents are all “wild cards.” Yes, it’s the name of the virus, but it’s also a term to denote anyone infected.

Meanwhile, anyone not infected is a “nat.” That’s short for “natural” … or for “gnat,” if you’re of a more cynical bent.

The Big Events

The Wild Cards novels do an admirable job of keeping up with the inexorable march of time. The action all started in 1946, but at this point we’re well into the 21st century. So there is now more than 70 years’ worth of history on the Wild Cards timeline. That sounds alarming, but the dense, rich history of this fictional universe is actually one of its most attractive features. It’s all part of the series’ ability to paint a world that seems very complete; as if it exists beyond the confines of the pages upon which the stories are printed.

Thus, there are references to events that are never fully explained, and to characters we may never meet. A particular story might note that “Mister Magnet” was in attendance at a recent gathering of aces. Who is Mister Magnet? We don’t know, and aren’t meant to know – at least for now. In some cases, perhaps four or five books down the line, that casually tossed-out character may suddenly come to the fore as an important player in the Wild Cards universe (or the WCU, if you like). When this happens, we can trust the consortium to fill us in on what we need to know. If Mister Magnet never does show up again … well, then we can just use our imaginations. (Spoilers: After first being mentioned in Vol. 3: Jokers Wild, Mister Magnet still hasn’t gotten any time in the spotlight. MM, we hardly knew ye…)

Consider, for example, Jay Ackroyd, wise-cracking ace private eye, and Wild Cards fan favorite. He’s mentioned for the first time in Vol. 2: Aces High, but never actually shows up. He appears for the first time in the follow-up book, but only as a supporting character. He isn’t made a lead protagonist until Vol. 7: Dead Man’s Hand, wherein he captured the hearts of a lot of us regular WC readers. Mr. Ackroyd features as a lead again in Vol. 10: Double Solitaire, then is completely absent from the next few books. He gets a cameo in Vol. 14: Marked Cards, and then finally takes the spotlight one last time in Vol. 15: Black Trump. In the 13 books since, Jay has hardly shown up at all, and never in more than cameo appearances.

This aspect of Wild Cards means that—unlike with a typical serial narrative—there aren’t necessarily any dependable “regular” characters from one volume to the next. The good news, however, is that a reader never need hesitate to pick a particular volume up off the shelf and give it a read, irrespective of where it might sit in the overall series chronology. Sure, you may encounter a reference that isn’t explained, but that just speaks to how large and immersive the WCU is. Each book is a window into a milieu wherein things are constantly happening, not just within the borders of said window—but also above, below, and to either side. You can trust George R.R. Martin and his fellow wonderful writers to fill you in on what you need to know, in any given moment.

That said, it can’t hurt to come into the WCU with a bit of knowledge on some of the more significant events to have marked that seven-decade-long Wild Cards timeline. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you’re cagey about that sort of thing, then by all means—buy all the Wild Cards novels and read them in numerical order. That’s what I did, and I’ve never looked back!

Wild Cards History: 1946-1985
(Volume 1)

Volume One is a survey of post-war America told through a Wild Cards lens, beginning in 1946 and moving chronologically, story by story, into the mid-1980s, when the book was first published. Each tale is by a different author and introduces a new character. In the short term, one of the most significant of this first wave of characters is Fortunato, an NYC pimp whose impressive array of powers helps put him on the track of a malevolent secret society. Those villains, along with their leader – the ace calling himself “the Astronomer”—are a major antagonistic force in the following two books…

The Freemasons and The Swarm: 1985-1986
(Volumes 2 and 3)

The Astronomer and the Masons are the first people on Earth to know that an invasion of our planet is imminent, by malignant alien entities collectively called the Swarm. In Vol. 2: Aces High, the aliens are turned away, and the Masons’ attempt to capitalize on the invasion is also spoiled. The Astronomer survives, however, to take a bloody revenge in Vol. 3: Jokers Wild. The fates of several favorite characters are altered in this third, climactic volume—not always for the better.

Puppetman And Ti Malice: 1986-1988
(Volumes 4 through 7)

It’s in Wild Cards Vol. 1 that we’re first introduced to a villain called Puppetman, one of the most terrifyingly intense fictional creations ever seen in any medium, whose ace ability allows him to bring out the worst, most depraved part of anyone, and leave no evidence of his tampering. Imagine finding yourself inexplicably indulging all of your worst instincts and darkest fantasies – and when it’s all over, you have no idea what came over you, and are forced to conclude that the evil is just who you are. Meanwhile, the man who was truly responsible simply moves on to victimize someone else—or, even worse, comes back later to toy with your mind again and again, with complete impunity. Puppetman comes to the fore beginning in Vol. 4: Aces Abroad, the book that also introduces an almost equally nasty “big bad” in the form of Ti Malice. Both characters are puppet masters of sorts; while never meeting each other, they manage to terrorize the series’ protagonists in parallel campaigns of depravity over the course of the books that follow. Both villains are hypnotically awful to read about when at the height of their powers…but their respective fates are incredibly satisfying. In a delightful storytelling approach, Vol. 6: Ace in the Hole and Vol. 7: Dead Man’s Hand are both set over the exact same eight-day period. The former presents the climax of Puppetman’s rise to power, while the latter details the delicious final fate of Ti Malice.

The Jumpers and the Rox: 1988-1991
(Volumes 8 through 11)

The long-oppressed underclass of the WCU, the jokers, find a new leader in Bloat. This massive, slug-like teenager establishes a sovereign joker homeland on Ellis Island—which is transformed by Bloat’s incredibly formidable psychic powers into a true island, with trappings like something out of a fantasy novel. Re-christened “the Rox,” the island is also home to Bloat’s uneasy allies, a gang of body-hopping teenage delinquents collectively called “jumpers.” The forces of law and order won’t tolerate the existence of the Rox nor the jumpers for very long, however; war is inevitable.

The Card Sharks: 1991-1994
(Volumes 12 through 15)

The flight from justice of a fugitive ace called Cap’n Trips—wanted for illegal drug use, and for springing his daughter from a juvenile detention center— is detailed in Vol. 12: Turn of the Cards. It’s in this magnificent entry that both Trips and the readers learn of a global anti-wild card conspiracy that has insinuated itself into all levels of government and industry. Over the course of the following two volumes, Vol. 13: Card Sharks and Vol. 14: Marked Cards, the conspiracy is investigated and ultimately exposed—but the surviving “Card Sharks” have an apocalyptic final weapon to deploy: a lethal virus that will target any and all living wild cards. The final book of the original Wild Cards run, Vol. 15: Black Trump, is a sprawling, awesomely exciting adventure focusing on the aces who attempt to foil the deployment of the eponymous contagion.

Wild Cards History, Revisited: 1969-2001
(Volume 16)

After the breathtaking intensity of the “Card Sharks” sequence, the desire for a breather is understandable. In fact, the Wild Cards series actually took a little publishing hiatus here, with seven years passing between Vol. 15: Black Trump and Vol. 16: Deuces Down. The latter volume is another chronological survey of the WCU, featuring flashbacks that focus on the aforementioned deuces — those with stories worth telling, even if their superhuman powers are less than impressive.

This may be a proper point at which to note that, given the Wild Cards series’ penchant for jumping around within its own timeline, a reader doesn’t needn’t feel overly constrained by the volume numbers. The Tor publishing schedule agrees, as the reissue of Vol. 16: Deuces Down is now available for purchase, having leap-frogged over the entire “Card Sharks” saga. The new version of this installment features another wrinkle to confound and delight the Wild Cards chronology nerds. (I hope it’s not too presumptuous to pluralize “Wild Cards chronology nerds.” I can’t be the only one, can I? Can I???)

The new version of Deuces not only contextualizes the various flashbacks within a modern-day narrative, but also takes readers further up the timeline than it previously had. The original volume stopped at 2001, but the current, improved iteration travels all the way to 2007, wherein it links up with the beginning of Vol. 18: Inside Straight. They’re quite clever, these Wild Cards authors.

The Committee: 2003-2010
(Volumes 17 through 20)

A seemingly standalone and self-contained novel at first, Vol. 17: Death Draws Five proves to be an invaluable piece of the Wild Cards puzzle, as it lays the groundwork for the “Committee Triad” that follows on its heels. Vol. 18: Inside Straight is a phenomenal volume – beautifully written and perfectly paced—which establishes two staples of the modern WCU. The first is American Hero, a reality show that manages to bring nearly 30 new aces into the saga’s foreground with each new season. The second is the Committee on Extraordinary Interventions, an ace task force empowered by the United Nations to use their powers for various noble aims all around the world. In practice, several contestants on American Hero will end up being recruited subsequently by the Committee over the years.

The Fifth Street Precinct: 2010-2012
(Volumes 21 through 23)

The geographical heart of the Wild Cards universe—and arguably its thematic heart as well—is the Manhattan neighborhood known as Jokertown, where most American jokers live and in which many of the greatest stories in the canon have taken place. The area falls within the jurisdiction of the Fifth Street Precinct, the officers of which have long been a presence in the WCU, but usually as supporting characters. In the magnificent Vol. 21: Fort Freak, however, the cops of Jokertown take center stage for the first time, as the contributing authors craft an arrestingly multi-layered narrative whose procedural nature feels unlike any other book in the series. In the following two volumes, we see the cops teaming up both with the feds and with members of the aforementioned Committee. Their shared objective: to halt the invasion of our world by Lovecraftian demons through a rift created inadvertently thanks to the powers of an aged ace called “Hellraiser.”

The “America” Cycle: 2013-2018
(Volumes 24 through 26)

When the Wild Cards series isn’t globe-trotting, the action tends to stay in New York City—or in Los Angeles, when it’s exploring Hollywood-centric concepts like American Hero—and there are only occasional brief excursions to other areas of the United States. A trio of self-contained anthologies break with that tradition, however. A steamboat cruise up the Mississippi River forms the spine for the charmingly good-natured Vol. 24: Mississippi Roll; a genuinely awesome time-travel adventure takes some fan-favorite characters on a tour of the history of the Windy City in Vol. 25: Low Chicago; and a high school band competition in San Antonio is the setting for the surprisingly YA-toned Vol. 26: Texas Hold ‘Em.

The “Britain” Cycle: 1946-2020
(Volumes 27 and 28)

As noted above, WCU stories will occasionally take readers out of the country. Characters spend a lot of time in England and Ireland in Vol. 15: Black Trump, for example. However, it’s not until the thrilling, amazing Vol. 27: Knaves Over Queens that the authors take us in and around the British Isles from start to finish. We begin all the way back in 1946 once again, just as VOL. 1 did, for a second post-war survey—this time of Britain, rather than America—but as always, through the unique Wild Cards lens. The book is another anthology of self-contained stories—many of them focusing on the Wild Cards division of British military intelligence coded “M.I.7”—and also referred to as the Most Puissant Order of the Silver Helix. Meanwhile, a sinister undercurrent winds through this volume, as the latest WCU “big bad” grows more dangerous over the decades: a joker-ace who sees herself as the living incarnation of the Celtic war goddess Badb. The consortium has always excelled at crafting engrossingly abominable antagonists, and here they have once again raised the bar. Badb may well be the most compelling villain the series has seen yet; both she and the Silver Helix are the stars of Vol. 28: Three Kings, a full mosaic novel that concludes the survey of Wild Cards Britain and takes us readers right up to 2020.

So, Where To Start?

If you want to dip your toe into the Wild Cards universe, conventional wisdom is that you’ll want to start at the beginning of one of the “cycles” delineated above. Personally, if you’re not keen on going back to the very beginning and want to sample a more recent entry, I’d suggest Fort Freak. This one is written in anthology format, but with stories so tightly interconnected that the overall effect is of a single, multi-layered mystery novel. Alternately, if you’ve got any sort of Anglophilial tendencies, then the Knaves Over Queens anthology is the way to go, as it takes readers right back to 1946 when the saga began, and the stories contain some of the most beautiful and evocative writing yet to appear in a Wild Cards volume.

What’s Next?

I’ve not focused too much on any particular characters that are part of the WCU, because the sprawling, “real-time” nature of the series is such that there is no way to know who might be showing up next. One could write up ten of the most prominent, and it’s quite possible that none of them would appear in the 29th volume of the series, in anything more than cameo roles. Sometimes forgotten characters arise anew to take center stage for the first time in years; and sometimes a book will come along like the fantastic Vol. 21: Fort Freak, which introduces a brand new cast that has virtually zero overlap with the protagonists of the previous book.

Of course, that said, I’m still a fanboy always trying to get clues as to what I can look forward to. What we know so far about the next book, solicited for a July, 2021 release: It’s titled Joker Moon, and will be a standalone anthology, not part of a multi-book cycle. If we’re to believe some of the sly references made by the authors near the start of Vol. 28: Three Kings, the title is not any kind of metaphor; this upcoming book is quite literally about jokers on the moon. Will it be jokers that readers are already familiar with, or a cast of brand-new original characters? At this point, that’s still anybody’s guess. However, what I’ve learned from decades of Wild Cards fandom is to trust that the ever-growing consortium of authors will point us toward the people and places that are important at any given moment…acting as tour guides within the unique, four-dimensional fictional reality they’ve crafted.

 

Jason Powell is the author of The Best There Is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and of several original musicals and operas. His sci-fi musical Invader? I Hardly Know Her, was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2010. On YouTube he calls himself The Man in Orange, and performs various original songs about topics such as Chris Claremont and Wild Cards (go figure). You can hear his tunes at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrDooteronomy.

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