Sometimes a book succeeds in spite of itself. Inside Straight had a confusing back story (I had to resort to Wikipedia to figure it all out) and a disjointed plot but it did two very important things for the Wild Cards series: it made me interested in and invested in the characters, and it made me wonder what happens next.
The Wild Cards Series is a set of books and short stories that are co-written by a group of authors and usually edited by George R.R. Martin and/or Melinda Snodgrass, depending on the volume. The first set of Wild Cards books told the story of an alternate history in which an alien virus is unleashed over Earth in 1946. The virus kills 90% of people who are infected with it. Of those who survive, some are deformed (Jokers). Others became Aces – people with superpowers. Some people are Jokers and Aces. For example, a person with wings might be considered either or both if the wings are both visible and functional.
Inside Straight is the first volume in a series of Wild Cards books about the new generation of Jokers and Aces – kids in their late teens and early twenties who can’t remember a world without superpowers. The contributors are Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R.R. Martin, Ian Tregillis, and S.L. Farrell. The first part of the book brings a group of young people together in a reality show but many of them become dissatisfied with seeking fifteen minutes of fame. One of them in particular seems fated to go to Egypt, where Jokers are being persecuted. This has huge consequences for the rest of the group.
I suspect everyone has a different favorite character. I’m especially fond of Rachel, AKA Dragon Huntress, a little girl who carries a backpack full of stuffed animals that she can bring to life (and make life-sized). My favorite line in the book is, “No, you can’t come with us to the genocide! MAybe when you’re twelve”. She doesn’t get much page time but I look forward to seeing her in other books. My REAL favorite is Michelle, AKA The Amazing Bubbles. I first encountered her in the Dangerous Women collection (my review is here). She stores kinetic energy as fat and then disperses it as bubbles, which can be as hard and large as a cannonball or as soft as a soap bubble. she’s compassionate, funny, courageous, and has some awesome positive body image messages going on. I want her to be my best friend.
I don’t think this is the best book to start the series with. I had a difficult time understanding how things work. Nor did I think it was a great book in terms of having a unified story. The jump from reality show to war in Egypt was abrupt and the timeline didn’t seem realistic. The section regarding the reality show was not compelling because standard reality shows are not compelling. The section set in Egypt was plenty compelling but frankly it didn’t make much sense, especially when the Aces are trying to figure out strategy in a tent. Where is everyone else? I realize the politics are complex but I do not believe that there is not one person with military experience, officially or unofficially, who wants in on this.
But here’s what I loved about the book – it made me interested in the characters and it made me curious about their future. As soon as it was over, I clicked on my library’s catalog to reserve the next book. And that had less to do with plot than with the fact that the authors kept surprising me with what characters did and said. Almost every character got a chance to shine and most of the characters grew in ways that surprised me or demonstrated sides of themselves I hadn’t expected. what was impressive about this was that no one’s revelations or growths seemed arbitrary. They were consistent with the character. I can’t wait to spend more time with these people!