Busted Flush is the latest Wild Cards "mosaic novel" edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. Since Inside Straight revived the series last year, I've been looking forward to the new installment with great relish. While it is excellent, it's not quite as good as its predecessor. The same great characters are there, but it seems much more disjointed than the first one despite the similar format.
In 1946, an alien virus hit New York, killing 90 percent of the residents, turning nine percent into monstrosities called “Jokers”, and giving the other 1 percent some type of “Ace”, or superpower. These Aces have lived their lives, becoming celebrities and sometimes fighting crime or villains with plans for world domination. As a result of last year's foray into Egypt and the Caliphate, the UN has formed a group of Aces called "The Committee," run by the formerly insane John Fortune, who also happens to have an Egyptian goddess in his head. Unrest continues in the Caliphate, namely in Kuwait and Iraq, the world's oil supplies are dwindling, a hurricane is approaching New Orleans, and there is great trouble in central Africa. The Committee divides its forces to deal with all of these, but something even more sinister might be going on behind the scenes.
The editors try something new in Busted Flush, and it isn't quite as successful as they intended. The different stories in the previous book formed one cohesive overarching narrative, linked together via blog posts from the Ace Jonathan Hive (a man who can turn into a swarm of bugs). While this book has a similar format, the stories themselves are split up throughout the book similar to chapters in a novel, jumping from one story to another and subsequently back again later in the book. This works a lot better in a novel written by one person; the writing styles are quite different with multiple authors. It takes a while to get used to the back and forth, making the beginning of the book much harder to get through than it should be.
Each story centers on one or two of the Aces, though all of the others are involved in various aspects of the plot as well. The way the stories are ripped apart, with pieces slotted in as appropriate, makes it seem more like a novel than a collection of stories. I am impressed with how the authors and the editors keep everything from becoming a massive jumble. Somebody else's ongoing story is referenced, with even a character or two from that story featured. This is made easier when one of the characters can teleport him/herself all over the world, along with anybody else s/he needs to carry along (Lilith is a hermaphrodite who can also transform into a stunningly beautiful woman or a huge, bear-like man with a massive sword).
The imagination behind all of these stories is wonderful, with creative characters, interesting plot twists, and great writing. Bubbles, for example, is a supermodel who when physically assaulted absorbs the energy and gets larger and larger. She can release that energy in the form of bubbles which can do various things depending on how she releases them. Or Ellen, who can take any object from a dead person and almost literally become that person, even with their powers if they were an Ace. This leads to an interesting situation with Jonathan Hive. These are just two examples of the creativity on display here.
Finally, there's little Drake, a boy around whom a lot of the story revolves. When he gets angry, he can go off in a nuclear explosion. He's already inadvertently wasted his hometown along with his family, and many global factions want to get their hands on him. He can also be an annoying, snot-nosed little kid at times, making him refreshingly normal. The authors do a good job of making him sympathetic but also "real," which is quite a feat.
Many things in the Wild Cards world are the same as in ours, despite the sharp left turn taken at the end of World War II with the Wild Card virus, but there are a lot of differences, too. The politics are vastly different, though the UN and its organizations are still relatively spineless, this time including The Committee that hosts many of the Aces in the novel. A couple of delicious small changes also rear their heads, though one of them made me cringe initially. First, Hillary Rodham is a single Attorney General in this United States (not a Clinton, but still a harpy). Secondly, Harry Connick Jr. is the mayor of New Orleans. The authors don't make a big deal out of either as they both have small roles, but just their inclusion put a bit of a smile on my face.
Busted Flush doesn't work quite as well as Inside Straight did, but it’s still a wonderful mosaic novel. It even leaves a couple of dangling plot threads (personal ones, so rest assured this is a complete book) for subsequent volumes to pick up. The book is very clearly intended for adults, with some sex and lots of swearing – parents, be warned. But it's so well-written that it's definitely worth a read, as long as you're not offended by that kind of thing.