Suicide Kings is the third part in the latest reincarnation of the long-running WILD CARDS series. Together with Inside Straight and Busted Flush it forms the Committee trilogy. I guess you could consider this trilogy WILD CARDS the next generation. These books are meant to be an entry point for new readers. Like most of the previous novels, Suicide Kings is a collaborative effort. This volume is written by six authors — Daniel Abraham, S.L. Farrell, Victor Milán, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Caroline Spector and Ian Tregillis — and is of course edited by George R.R. Martin.
We return to the committee one year after the evens in Busted Flush, when the Amazing Bubbles managed to prevent New Orleans from being hit by a nuclear explosion. Bubbles has been in a coma ever since but work for the committee continues. The organisation has attracted more Aces to take some of the strain of the overworked original members but it is also increasingly being bogged down by bureaucracy. When a major crisis develops in Africa, political sensitivities pretty much prevent the committee from taking action. This position cannot be held indefinitely however. The Caliphate seems to be on the brink of collapse after a major defeat at the hands of the People’s Paradise of Africa (a nation made up of a number of countries in central Africa). With the incredibly powerful and absolutely ruthless Radical as their main weapon, the PPA seems unstoppable.
In the mean time, some of the old guard committee members are asking themselves is this is how they are going to save the world from now on. Disappointed in the UN-leadership and disturbed by reports of the Radical’s actions and other atrocities that are taking place in the PPA, many of them find their own reasons for a smaller scale, private initiative. Of course without the official backing of the committee these actions are not very well prepared and often very, very dangerous. Then again, the alternative seems to be worse.
As I mentioned above, this novel was written by six people so, not surprisingly, it has six main story lines that cross and interconnect at various points in the novel. In the previous two books the contributions of the various authors have been split into chapters but are otherwise more or less intact. In Suicide Kings Martin has chosen a different approach. The book is divided in chapters named after the day they cover and consists of snippets of text by each author. Some of them are as short as half a page and they rarely exceed four. In my eyes this is the greatest weakness of the book; it gives me the feeling of being rushed through the story, of seeing one frame of a movie and then being rushed on to the next scene. At times it is intensely frustrating to leave a character in the middle of something and jump into the next scene.
Thematically on the other hand, this book is probably the most interesting of the three. It clearly refers to events in our timeline, in particular the second Congo war. One of the most bloody conflicts since the second world war, this conflict was very much ignored by much of the western world. The extreme levels of violence against the population, women in particular, and the extensive use of child soldiers in the conflict have clearly served as an inspiration to this novel. In a brief afterword Martin asks for support for the victims of this conflict — victims that are all too often perpetrators as well. Dealing with these children is an impossible dilemma and unfortunately the situation in Eastern Congo in particular still isn’t stable.
Our WILD CARDS heroes struggle with these issues throughout the book. Especially the morality of killing child soldiers is something that poses a major problem for some of them. Killing is never easy for most of them but when it is a child pointing a gun at you, it becomes infinitely harder to pull the trigger yourself. The question of whether these children are victims or the enemy and the even more complicated question of what to do with these children once the fighting stops is key to the final part of this novel. The authors drive the difficulty of the situation home mercilessly, and although some of their goals are achieved, this makes for a bittersweet ending to the trilogy as a whole. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked up a series of books inspired by superhero comics but it certainly wasn’t this. The authors have managed to surprise me with the depth of their characters and the difficult problems they’ve tackled in this trilogy.
A book written by so many different authors will always pose serious challenges for the editor. Martin has done an admirable job in making all these different authors speak with one voice but Suicide Kings also clearly shows some of the drawbacks of this process. Especially in the early parts of the novel the constant jumps between characters made this book tough going. Once the direction of the story became clear, my reading speeded up significantly and I must admit the finale of the book is very strong, both emotionally and in terms of the action scenes. I guess on the whole I liked this one better than Busted Flush, which suffered from a meandering plot, but the result is still less than stellar. After the strong opening I am mildly disappointed by the way this trilogy developed but on the other hand I am also impressed by the way the books dare to take on some pretty heavy themes and the way the characters are developed by multiple authors. In short, I am left with mixed feelings about this interesting but challenging project.