Aces Abroad edited by George R.R. Martin
Aces Abroad is the fourth WILD CARDS anthology edited by George R.R. Martin. It was originally published in 1988, released in a new print edition by Tor in 2015, and released in audio format by Random House Audio in March 2016. It would be best to read the previous volumes (Wild Cards, Aces High, Jokers Wild) first, not only because they introduce the most important characters and provide a lot of background information that you’ll need to fully appreciate Aces Abroad, but also because those first three books are more entertaining than this one is and represent the series better, I think.
WILD CARDS is a shared universe written by several authors under the leadership of Martin. Some of the volumes are anthologies and some are mosaic novels. Aces Abroad is an anthology with original stories written by Stephen Leigh, John J. Miller, Leanne C. Harper, Gail Gerstner-Miller, Walton Simons, Edward Bryant, Lewis Shiner, Melinda Snodgrass, Victor Milán, and Michael Cassutt. George R.R. Martin wrote a frame story titled “From the Journal of Xavier Desmond” that creates transitions, fills in gaps, and smooths over plot holes. The new Tor reprint and the audio edition contain two new stories by Kevin Andrew Murphy and Carrie Vaughn. These were not in the earlier editions.
So far the WILD CARDS stories have taken place mostly in Manhattan, but as the title suggests, Aces Abroad takes some of the Aces and Jokers out of the country in 1987. After the devastating events on Wild Card Day (related in the previous volume, Jokers Wild), the authorities think it prudent to get some of the Aces out of town until tensions are eased. So they are sent on a world tour to make diplomatic ties, to discover how Jokers are being treated in other countries, and to win back the trust of the public who are accusing Aces of abusing their powers.
The delegation includes Dr. Tachyon (the foppish alien who created the Wild Card virus), Senator Gregg Hartman (who keeps his coercive Ace power secret due to his political ambitions), Jack Braun/Golden Boy (the strong man), Hiram Worchester (who can control his own and other people’s weights), Peregrine (the beautiful winged woman), Chrysalis (who has transparent skin), a reporter named Sarah Morgenstern (a Nat who suspects Senator Hartman of killing her sister as we learn in the first story “The Tint of Hatred” by Stephen Leigh), the Joker Xavier Desmond the “mayor” of Jokertown and the founder of the Jokers Anti-Defamation League whose diary provides the unifying frame story, and various other Aces, Jokers, reporters, aides, body guards and other support staff.
In “Beasts of Burden” by John J. Miller, the delegates first flies to Haiti where some of them visit an impoverished hospital and then get kidnapped. Also in Haiti we meet, for the first time, a really creepy villain named Ti Malice who will feature in future volumes (I can’t wait).
In “Blood Rights” by Leanne C. Harper, we meet two Guatemalan men with Ace powers who become known as the Hero Twins after visions from a Mayan god tell them to lead their people in a revolution. The delegation from America has only a small tangential role in this story and I don’t think it contributed much to the WILD CARD universe.
“Warts and All,” the new story by Kevin Andrew Murphy, is about a charming 9-foot tall green troll named Howard who likes butterflies. (He is pictured on the book’s cover.) He joins the Ace named Fantasy to save a kidnapped girl from a drug cartel and some corrupt police in Lima, Peru. This story doesn’t seem to fit the tone of the others, but it introduces a couple of really strange characters. One is an assassin frog, and the girl who was kidnapped has a surprising power.
Then it’s on to Buenos Aires where Golden Boy topples the government. In Africa, Xavier Desmond, the malformed American Joker whose family left him, witnesses drought and starvation in Ethiopia, Apartheid in South Africa, and AIDS in Kenya. He realizes that there are worse things than his life in Jokertown and wonders what should be America’s role in helping to alleviate the suffering of people in other parts of the world.
In “Down by the Nile” by Gail Gerstner-Miller, the delegation visits the Temple of the Living Gods, a group of Aces and Jokers who look like legendary Egyptian gods. When the temple is attached by terrorists, they are helped by the American Aces. The Living Gods will appear again in later WILD CARDS volumes. On the personal front, Peregrine gets a big surprise at about this point of the tour — something that will change her life.
As the delegates tour the Middle East, terrorism is a big problem and Senator Hartman hopes he may be able to use his hidden Ace power to stabilize the region. It doesn’t end well, though.
In “The Teardrop of India” by Walton Simons, a huge ape escapes from the filming of King Pongo and kidnaps a blond woman. The American Aces plan to rescue her before the Indian authorities kill the ape. Why do they care about the ape? Because they realize that he is more than he appears to be…
Edward Bryant’s “Down in the Dreamtime” features Cordelia, the runaway we met in Jokers Wild. She is sent to Australia to purchase a satellite ground station for the entertainment network she works for. On the way, she gets attacked by nightmarish creatures and transported into the Dreamtime where she fights a battle with a witch. I have no idea why this story is in this book.
“Zero Hour” by Lewis Shiner brings the welcome return of one of the most popular WILD CARDS characters, Fortunato the half-Black, half-Japanese handsome pimp. He has been hanging out in Japan after the devastating events of Jokers Wild. It’s good he’s there because Hiram needs his help when he gets mixed up with a ruthless Japanese mafia clan. It’s at this point that Aces Abroad finally feels like the kind of high-octane superhero story that we’ve come to expect. Best: It’s got ninja Aces.
Next it’s on to the Soviet Bloc countries where the governments mostly try to hide their Jokers from the rest of the world… in the cases where they don’t just kill them, that is. “Always Spring in Prague,” the new story by Carrie Vaughn, occurs a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution that brought down the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. This story introduces an interesting new character — Lady Black, a woman who works for the U.S. Justice Department and is part of the delegation’s security detail. She stores and emits electrical energy, which means that nobody can touch her. In Prague, one of the delegation politicians asks Lady Black to help her find a donor’s daughter, a Joker who has joined a group of student dissidents. This story is about rejection and social isolation, and it again brings up questions about America’s involvement with injustices we see in other countries. I liked it. I hope we’ll be seeing Lady Black in future volumes.
In Victor Milán’s, “Puppets,” the delegation is in Berlin. (Fun WILD CARDS fact: Dr. Tachyon hates socialism.) Senator Hartman is kidnapped (yes, another kidnapping!) by Red Army Faction terrorists (yes, more terrorists!) while being driven along the Berlin Wall (which would be torn down the year after this story was written, how cool is that?). This story is brutal and it introduces a fascinatingly horrifying Ace named Mackie Messer, also known as Mack the Knife. He’s a psychopath who steals every scene he’s in. He’s riveting and this story is exciting. (Though I think there is an inconsistency here. In “Zero Hour,” Hiram was in trouble because he couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay his debt while in “Puppets,” he claims that he is “a man of not inconsiderable means” and can help pay the ransom for the senator.)
Melinda M. Snodgrass puts Dr. Tachyon through the emotional wringer in “Mirrors of the Soul” which is set in Paris and involves another terrorist attack and another revolution. I won’t tell you what happens here, because it’d be spoiling, but Tachyon will never be the same. From there the delegation moves on to the more peaceful venues of London, Ireland, and Canada.
Michael Cassutt’s “Legends” shows us that Russian and German agents have been conspiring against the American delegation, that they suspect (and are worried about) Senator Hartman’s Ace powers, and that they have plans to thwart him, even if it means coming to America to do it. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.
At the end of the book is an afterword by George R.R. Martin in which he describes some of the creative process behind WILD CARDS, explains how hard it is to compile and edit stories in a shared universe, and admits that there were too many new characters and too many kidnappings in Aces Abroad. He mentions that he believes the strength of this series is that it is not only fun superhero fiction, but deals with ethical and political issues, not just good versus evil. He explains also how Aces Abroad and the next couple of books fit into the overarching plot of the series. In the next book, Down and Dirty, everyone will be back in Manhattan for a gang war.
The audiobook version of Aces Abroad was produced last month by Random House Audio. I’ve been waiting for a long time for someone to pick up the rest of this series on audio, so I’m thrilled about it, even though I think this was a weak volume. There is a full cast of narrators, which is common for an anthology, especially one that’s nearly 24 hours long and has a huge cast of characters. However, in a shared universe, when the characters overlap between the stories, I think a single narrator works better. The problem is that each reader gives each character a different voice, and a couple of the readers are not as good as the others, which makes the narration feel disjointed and a bit clumsy. Still, though, it’s nice to be able to read WILD CARDS in audio format and I plan to listen to the rest of the series that way.
I like the idea of an anthologized shared universe — and I love that Martin addressed the challenges of putting such an anthology together in his afterword. Thanks, Kat!