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Lowball: A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel
Edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Cover Artist: Michael Komarck
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765331953
Date: 04 November 2014 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Jokers are disappearing and the police don't seem to care. That's the kickoff in Lowball, the newest Wild Cards mosaic novel by editors George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. What seems like a disturbing pattern only grows more so, and Jokertown's Finest have to team up with some improbable allies to get at the truth--no matter where it leads.

"Those About to Die" by David Anthony Durham follows the Infamous Black Tongue, Jokertown's vigilante defender, as he seeks the missing jokers alongside Father Squid. They enlist the help of rookie officer Francis "Franny" Black of Fort Freak, but quickly get in too deep. When they discover the truth, both men will have a moment of reckoning far from home under the most horrifying conditions.

In "The Big Bleed" by Michael Cassutt, SCARE agent Jamal Norwood (aka Stuntman) is having difficulties with his superpower. But he doesn't have time to stop; SCARE keeps him going with protection details (it's the start of the presidential campaign season) and other assignments, even as his physical condition deteriorates. What's going on and can Dr. Finn find the answer?

Melinda Snodgrass tells Franny Black's side of things in "Galahad in Blue". The rookie gets an offer he can hardly refuse (if maybe he should anyway), copes (barely) with being disliked, handles a girlfriend's over-the-top request, and lands in the biggest case of his career. Provided he survives it, of course.

Mary Anne Mohanraj continues the story of Det. Michael Stevens and his unusual home life, with two girlfriends and a small daughter. His girlfriend Kavitha's brother has come to town and fallen in with dangerous associates--ones who may be the subject of a growing investigation. Stevens spends his off-hours searching for the kid, even as he wants to find time to propose. Even so, what he discovers from doing his job will have profound effects on everyone around him.

"Cry Wolf" by David D. Levine tells the tale of Eddie Carmichael, a grotesque little joker who happens to be a skilled artist...with a dark secret. On assignment to draw a police sketch of kidnappers, Eddie meets Lupo, who used to work at the legendary Crystal Palace but has since fallen on hard times. Awestruck to be around someone who was there in the old days, Eddie risks everything to help Lupo stay ahead of the kidnap squad.

"Road Kill" by Walter Jon Williams tells the story of Jokertown coroner/rocket enthusiast/roadkill gourmet "Gordon the Ghoul" (aka Dr. Otto Gordon). Living in the hinterlands of New Jersey in order to pursue his hobbies, Gordon comes across a facility that sets off his warning bells. Accompanied by Officer Dina "K-10" Quattrone, Gordon discovers another piece of the puzzle in the missing jokers case. This story in particular ends with a bang.

Carrie Vaughn reunites some old friends in "Once More, For Old Times Sake". Ana Cortez (aka Earth Witch) has been working for the UN's Committee for a while, but takes time out to see friends like Kate "Curveball" Brandt in a publicity appearance at Yankee Stadium. But when more veterans of American Hero start to show up on her doorstep, things take a turn for the weird. And a walk through the neighborhood becomes chaos with pirated DVDs, a mysterious white van, and shared history all crashing together.

"No Parking..." by Ian Tregillis follows Rustbelt through Jokertown as he tries to find out what happened to the missing jokers. Wally Gunderson is drawn into this situation when his adopted daughter's much-loved teacher goes missing. Deciding he has to do something about it, Wally "investigates" like only he can, forming an unlikely partnership with a shrill, put-upon meter maid. And what do you know...?

As these separate storylines braid together, the mystery of the missing jokers takes on greater significance. A white van that vanishes from a dead-end, a TV producer who knows too much, narrow escapes from a kidnap squad that seems to be mostly foreigners and previously unknown aces with terrifying powers--this is the start of something very, very big in the wild cards world.

It'll end in pain and horror, with two men forced to make shattering choices, another lost behind enemy lines, the death of a champion, a hero refusing to submit despite the certainty of a nightmarish punishment, and the rising of a danger to the entire world. Lowball starts off small but in the end, this promises to be a storyline that reshapes the entire Wild Cards universe.

It's difficult to choose a favorite among these stories, as they are are superb additions to the Wild Cards canon. "The Big Bleed" and "Galahad in Blue" operate in tandem as the interstitial storylines, following Jamal and Franny on their separate and sometimes overlapping pursuit of the truth. Cassutt and Snodgrass play well off each other, both bringing their experience in TV to play in unexpected ways. While they provide the framework, every story adds crucial pieces to the puzzle--the bootleg DVDs, the white van sought by Rustbelt and his eagle-eyed partner, a creepy building infiltrated by Gordon and his pal Steely Dan, the brother Sandip's involvement--every story adds more. It's a dazzling feat of writing and editing both.

Readers eager to find the very best in superhuman storytelling cannot afford to pass up the Wild Cards books--they're simply too important to the genre. Lowball has the hallmarks of being the start of a major turning point in this ongoing alternate history, but readers really ought to start with the "American Hero" trilogy (beginning with Inside Straight) and continuing through Fort Freak to build up familiarity with the characters and situations bubbling over in this volume.

As always, Martin, Snodgrass and company have delivered a fine, fast-paced and thoroughly engaging read.

Highly recommended.

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