Fort Freak is the twenty-first entry in the WILD CARDS universe, a long running series of mosaic novels edited by George R.R. Martin. It is not necessary to have read the previous twenty volumes to read this one; Fort Freak works fine as a standalone. There are numerous references to earlier books and cameos by characters that starred in them, but nothing that makes it absolutely necessary to have read earlier volumes. That is probably a good thing. The WILD CARDS series is currently published by Tor, the fourth publisher to take on this series. Some of the older volumes are pretty hard to find these days. The original WILD CARDS novel (1987) has been reprinted by Tor recently, with a number of new stories added, so if you want to read about the origins of the WILD CARDS universe, it should not be a problem to find a copy of that one at least
As with the previous three WILD CARDS novels published by Tor, Inside Straight, Busted Flush and Suicide Kings, collectively known as the Committee Triad, Martin has gathered a mix of WILD CARDS veterans and writers new to the series. Fort Freak was written by Paul Cornell, David Anthony Durham, Ty Franck, Stephen Leigh, Victor Milán, John Jos. Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Cherie Priest and Melinda M. Snodgrass. After the events in the Committee Triad, which took us to various places in Africa and the Middle East, Fort Freak returns again to the epicentre of the WILD CARDS universe, New York City. The book follows the adventures of the officers of New York’s fifth precinct, an area also known as Joker Town, New York’s ghetto for those deformed by the Wild Card virus.
As with previous novels, each of the authors tells the story of one character, resulting in a novel with a lot of different points of view. Cherie Priest has the dubious honour of providing the frame story. Her part of the tale is cut up in no less than 18 episodes. It features detective Leo Storgman, better known by his Joker name Ramshead (now you know who graces the cover of this volume). Detective Storgman is on the verge of retirement, something he looks forward to with a mix of desperation and dread, and is determined to solve one last murder case before his time at the fifth precinct is done. A murder that has haunted him since walking onto the crime scene in 1978. While Leo dives deeper into this old mystery, around him the day to day work continues in what is surely New York’s most peculiar police station.
The challenge to the editor is making all these separate stories come together in a convincing novel, of course. George R.R. Martin has had quite a lot of practice at editing such a volume and he does a very good job of it. Although I pity Cherie Priest, who no doubt had to do a lot of tweaking to make her part into the frame the story needs to succeed, Fort Freak as a whole works pretty well. That is not to say all readers will enjoy that many changes in point of view, or that I personally enjoyed each of the contributions in equal measure. Besides Priest’s part, I particularly liked David Anthony Durham’s creation Marcus (also known as the Infamous Black Tongue) and John Jos. Miller’s chapters dealing with WILD CARDS veteran Father Squid (a notable character in Aces Abroad). I was less impressed with the unlikely love triangle detective Michael Stevens finds himself in, a section written by Mary Anne Mohanraj.
I can’t remember if Martin did this in the previous novels, but one thing that struck me about the writing was that first person perspectives, in particular Melinda M. Snodgrass’ and Paul Cornell’s contributions, were mixed with third person perspectives. The first person perspectives fit the stories those authors are trying to tell well enough, but they don’t really help to make Fort Freak feel like one cohesive novel. If you want to approach this book as a conventional novel instead of a mosaic, it disrupts the flow of the narrative a bit.
The aspect of Fort Freak I enjoyed most is the way it shows how much the mutations caused by the virus impact life in Joker Town and the police work that needs to be done there. With both officers and criminals in the possession of odd but sometimes extremely useful powers, it is never safe to rule out the possibility of a Wild Cards talent being involved in a crime. It’s a strange combination of solid old fashioned police work and Wild Card abilities that is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever read a police procedural and at the same time totally alien. It’s a nice twist on the genre.
Fort Freak is written as a standalone and, given the limited availability of the older books in the series, that makes sense. It can be read without having read any of the other volumes, but I’m not sure it is a good point to enter the series. There are a lot of nods to other books in the series, and some characters have quite a history. Besides the aforementioned Father Squid, The Sleeper, originally a creation of Roger Zelazny, makes an appearance, for instance. This novel is a treat for those familiar with the WILD CARDS universe, a decent entry in the overall series. For first time readers I would recommend starting with Wild Cards I or Inside Straight, though. The next novel about the fifth precinct cops, titled Lowball, was published in November 2014. I look forward to it.