Book Review: Inside Straight, Edited by George R.R. Martin

super17Sometimes 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!

Book Review: Dangerous Women

52a0fc54463a6.preview-300Dangerous Women is an anthology of stories about, you guessed it, women who are, in one way or another, dangerous.  The anthology is edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois and includes a Game of Thrones novella by Martin.  I was thrilled about this book, picturing a bevy of kick-ass women of both the wits and the weapons variety.

Well, I can’t quibble with the quality of the writing in this anthology.  Every story is solidly written.  All the authors have a good use of language and world-building.  One of my favorite things about this book is that it involves a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, noir, and western.

But although the technical level of the writing was very high, I was disappointed by the content.  Most of these stories weren’t particularly empowering.  Many of them were about women who use sex as a weapon.  A surprising number of the stories were narrated by men, and dealt with men’s fears about women wielding sexual power.  Those stories weren’t always bad, but for me when it comes to exploring the idea that women can use sex as a weapon against men, a little goes a long way.  Not all the stories were like that, but more than I had expected.

Although I was little disappointed in the anthology as a whole, there were several stories that I thought were remarkable.  Not only did I like the stories while I was reading them, but they stayed in my mind long afterwards.  Here’s some standouts:

My Heart is Either Broken, by Megan Abbott

This is a haunting, chilling contemporary noir about a couple whose baby is kidnapped – maybe.  This story is clearly influenced by the Casey Anthony case and it manages to infuse the story with compassion and unexpected twists.  I never felt like I knew what was coming up and I did not expect to feel the parade of emotions that I went through.  It’s a tiny gem of a short story that is a master class in how to accomplish a great deal in a short space.

Neighbors, by Megan Lindholm

This is a contemporary with a hint of fantasy/horror about a woman who has reached the age where her children want her to move into a retirement home because they fear for her safety, and she refuses to leave her house.  I wanted this story to be more fair to the woman’s adult children, especially the daughter, who comes across as a one-dimensional jerk.  But it does do a good job of allowing some of the son’s very valid concerns to show through his impatience.

The fantasy elements of the story are far less involving than the day-to-day terrors of the older woman who is running out of options.  The moment when she looks around her house and suddenly realizes that it actually is falling apart is shattering.  The descriptions of suburban mom life that she relates in flashback are spot on – I say this as a suburban mom myself.  If you read one story from this anthology, make it this one.

Lies My Mother Told Me, by Caroline Spector

This is the only story I read that made me crazy to run out and find more stories set in the same world.  Structurally it’s a little weak – it feels more like part of a larger story than as a complete short story.  It’s part of the Wild Cards universe, a literary universe shared by a ton of amazing authors who all write different stories set in the same world.  It’s inventive and funny and scary and touching.  This story involves some outrageously bizarre superhero women and how they work together to protect their families.  I loved these characters so much I wanted to bring them all home to live with me forever.  Except the bad guys, who I loathed with an appropriate (high) level of loathing.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly, by Nancy Kress

A lovely, harrowing, somewhat hopeful tale about the importance of beauty and art in a dystopian world.