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Mississippi Roll by George R.R. Martin with Melinda Snodgrass
Cover Artist: Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765390523
Date: 05 December 2017

Links: G.R.R.M's Website / M. Snodgrass' Website / Show Official Info /

As the steamboat Natchez, ninth and perhaps last of that name, makes its way up the Mississippi River on its final voyage, a number of stories will play out one by one ... and the fate of all may rest on a steam-powered ghost.

In Mississippi Roll, the new Wild Cards mosaic novel edited by George R.R. Martin with Melinda Snodgrass, the stakes are not the fate of the world. (That was the last book.) No, the stories here are much more down to earth, but what happens to the assortment of aces, jokers, and nats (that is, ordinary people) is still plenty dramatic.

Kicking off with "In the Shadow of the Tall Stacks" by Stephen Leigh, readers are introduced to Wilbur Leathers, last in a line of steamboat captains and the owner/builder of the latest steamboat to bear the name Natchez. In 1951, the steamboat is running at a loss and Wilbur owes money to some unsavory characters. He just wants to spend time with his wife, pregnant with their first child, but an altercation and the turn of a wild card leave Wilbur a steam-powered ghost.

Whatever the fate of the Natchez, "Steam Wilbur" is doomed to share it. And that fate appears to be permanent drydock in Cincinnati, as a waterfront attraction. Wilbur fears that if the boilers go cold, he might be condemned to wander the boat, unable to make himself seen or write words in fogged windows. He has until the Natchez reaches Cincinnati and takes part in a steamboat race to solve his problems.

One of those problems is what followed American aces home from the debacle in Kazakhstan. Refugees are being smuggled into the country, and a number of them come to hide aboard the Natchez. Billy Ray and Midnight Angel go to investigate on behalf of the government, but "Wingless Angel" by John Jos. Miller is much more about recovering from the horrors of a nightmarish experience and learning to live again. With Angel broken, Billy despairs over his inability to help her. Along comes a gross injustice and the presence of her enemy, the Infamous Black Tongue.

With the refugees now aboard, Wilbur finds himself engaged in helping them hide from cruel Homeland Security agent Evangeline Jones, as well as trying to assist Captain Montaigne in buying the Natchez from owners oddly dismissive of their offer.

In "A Big Break in the Small Time", Carrie Vaughn tells the story of Andrew and Sylvia, former Vegas entertainers reduced to working the lounge on the Natchez. When Andrew stops a predator, he starts looking for crime and makes the acquaintance of Leo Storgman and Jack Robicheaux (a name long-time readers might recognize). However, Andrew's new hobby may end up wrecking everything.

Storgman returns in "Death on the Water" by Cherie Priest when a twist of fate leads this ex-cop into a full-blown murder investigation. Partnered with his wife Wanda, Storgman (aka Ramshead) has to deal with a ghost-hunting reality TV show crew--not an easy task--while learning about the bygone Misty Sighs. The problem is too many suspects, from a lovestruck crew member to a threatening tough guy, and too many secrets.

Kevin Andrew Murphy's "Find the Lady" tells the story of the remaining two Jokertown Boys, a boy-band act with its best years now long behind them, and their gig aboard the Natchez. Alongside his buddy Gimcrack, who can cobble together amazing jerry-rigged inventions, Roger Washburn has no idea what the future holds--until his prized raven Lenore goes missing. What Washburn finds is unexpected passengers and a problem: Can he help people who really need him to be more than just a washed-up teen star? And can a bird-voiced joker help save her people in their darkest hour?

"Under the Arch" by David Levine brings back an old wild carder for one last adventure, as he helps two lovestruck kids avoid a vengeful father in the streets and sewers of St. Louis. Although the old ace would much prefer to spend his time sightseeing, an appeal from a new friend pulls him into a family intrigue that threatens to expose the refugees.

As the steamboat reaches the end of its journey, matters come to a head. Can Wilbur save his beloved steamboat? What will happen in Cincinnati? Read on.

After the extreme high stakes of the previous novels, Mississippi Roll is a chance for readers to catch their breath and reflect. The aftermath of the Kazakh disaster looms, in the form of the refugees and the federal government's callous indifference to their fate--it seems the administration in the book is unsympathetic to foreign victims of disaster--even as the stories tie up loose ends. Leo Storgman's new life as an insurance investigator is a fitting coda to his own story (Fort Freak), Andrew Yamauchi (aka Wild Fox) recalls the introduction of American Hero, and the plight of Midnight Angel shows that even heroes can break ... and maybe find ways to start healing. And, with one significant return, the book does a deep-cuts callback to the series' earliest installments.

In all, the book serves as an oddly introspective musing upon several recent Wild Cards stories, a look back at what's been going on before setting off on new adventures. A series that has gone on for 32 years sometimes needs this moment to pause, but even so, the stories here are terrific and well worth the journey.


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