Jokers Wild (1987) is the third in George R.R. Martin’s WILD CARDS series. The WILD CARDS books are anthologies and mosaic novels set in a shared world and containing a large cast of regular characters. Authors contributing to Jokers Wild are Edward Bryant, Leanne C. Harper, George R.R. Martin, John J. Miller, Lewis Shiner, Walter Simons, and Melinda M. Snodgrass. Each author handles the perspective of a particular character and, under George R.R. Martin’s amazing editorship, the different perspectives and plotlines magically come together to form a cohesive and practically seamless story.
The entire plot of Jokers Wild takes place in Manhattan on September 15, 1986. That’s the 40th anniversary of the arrival of the Wild Card virus to New York City. (BTW, if you have not read the previous volumes, Wild Cards and Aces High, you really should or you’ll be kind of lost here.) People from all over the country descend on Manhattan every Wild Card Day. It’s an excuse for normal people (the Naturals or “Nats”) to dress up in costumes, get intoxicated, and act crazy. For them, it’s a lot like Mardi Gras (except that this parade includes a float shaped like a giant penis). For the Aces it’s a day to celebrate their supernatural powers. For the Jokers, the ones who were horrendously mutated by the virus, and especially for Dr. Tachyon, the alien dandy who feels responsible for the virus, it’s a day of mourning.
- Lewis Shiner’s Astronomer, an old man who gains power when he tortures and kills people, is out for revenge against the Aces who defeated him in the last book. He is especially eager to get hold of Fortunato the pimp.
- George R.R. Martin’s Hiram Worchester (aka Fatman), the gourmet cook and owner of Aces High, the ritzy restaurant at the top of the Empire State Building, is preparing for his annual extravagant dinner for the Aces. When he discovers that his favorite fishmonger has been getting the shakedown from a new gang of Jokers who have recently been employing a brutal Ace called the Bludgeon, he turns to the lawyer named Loophole for help.
- John J. Miller’s new character, Jennifer Meloy (aka Wraith), is a reference librarian who can ghost through solid objects. She’s been using this ability to steal from the rich and give to her favorite charities. When she steals some books from crime lord Kien Phuc’s safe, she gets dragged into the big events happening on Wild Card Day. Wraith adds some levity since her particular power makes it necessary for her to wear a string bikini while ghosting. In Jokers Wild, she inadvertently ends up running all over Manhattan in nothing but that string bikini. John J. Miller’s characters Brennan (aka Yeoman) and Father Squid are also part of Wraith’s story.
- Melinda Snodgrass’s character Roulette (who kills men by creating and releasing a fatal neurotoxin during sex) is out to kill Dr. Tachyon in revenge for the virus.
- Edward Bryant’s Ace named Sewer Jack, a man who turns into a man-eating alligator when he gets stressed, is looking for his niece Cordelia who has run away to Manhattan from Louisiana and has managed to catch the eyes of several Aces.
- Leanne C. Harper’s Bagabond, the bag lady who can control animals, works with her friend Rosemary, the district attorney, to find and acquire the books that Wraith stole.
- Walter Simons’ character James Spector (aka Demise) is the reluctant minion of the Astromer. He bumbles in and out of all the other characters’ plotlines as he tries to find the stolen books and avoid being killed by the Astronomer. His story is pretty funny.
Several other Aces play minor roles including Kafka, Peregrine, Chrysalis, Captain Trips, Kid Dinosaur, Modular Man, and Popinjay. (Popinjay has my favorite superpower — he can point his finger at someone, pull the “trigger,” and send his victim to any location he can visualize.)
Jokers Wild is fun. With all the colorful superheroes, over-the-top villains, thin characterization, and constant action, it has a comic book feel. There are some absurd scenes that are hilarious (mostly involving Demise) and there is a gruesome torture and rape scene that was quite disturbing. Even with the frantic pace, Jokers Wild still manages to address a couple of important issues, such as the AIDS virus, and prejudice and discrimination are always a theme in the WILD CARDS books. This is a brisk-moving story that could so easily have spun out of control, or at least felt unbalanced, with so much action and so many contributing authors, but editor Martin brilliantly holds it all in check. Characters organically weave in and out of other authors’ story lines, never getting out of character or repeating information. It’s quite impressive.
It’s been four years since the previous novel, Aces High, was released in audio format by Brilliance Audio. Finally, Penguin Random House has picked up the series and has just published the audio version of Jokers Wild. It’s 15 hours long and employs seven narrators: Felicia Day is Bagabond, Ron Donachie is Hiram Worchester, Pam Grier is Roulette, Stephen McHattie is Demise, Ray Porter is Sewer Jack, Prentice Onayemi is Fortunato, and Molly Quinn is Wraith. Pam Grier’s pace was not always on point, but all of the other readers were fabulous. My favorite was Prentice Onayemi, an African American actor who I was unfamiliar with. Now I have a bit of a crush on his rich buttery voice. It was perfect for Fortunato. I also loved Stephen McHattie’s gravelly voice and Ron Donachie’s versatility.
I’m happy to see that Penguin Random House will be bringing out the next two books, Aces Abroad and Down and Dirty, in the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to report on them.