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Busted Flush by the Wild Card Consortium
Edited by George R.R. Martin & Mellinda M. Snodgrass
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765317827
Date: 09 December 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

What does it mean to "save the world"?

It's a dark time, and the world needs heroes. The good news is, they're here--in the form of the UN's Committee on Extraordinary Interventions, a group of wild carders brought together to help solve the world's problems through carefully applied superheroics.

The bad news? The world's economy is tanking severely, crises are escalating out of control all over the globe, and the Committee's handful of agents are stretched to the breaking point.

Such is the situation in Busted Flush, the new Wild Cards novel edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. Former ace John Fortune manages the Committee, with powerhouses Drummer Boy, Amazing Bubbles, Curveball, Lilith, Rustbelt and Earth Witch criss-crossing the world to pitch in. The problem is too many crises, too few operatives, and a bunch of problems behind the scenes.

First up, a team of aces heads to the Caliphate (an Islamic empire of many Middle Eastern states) to discuss economic matters with Prince Siraj, whose agent Bahir is stirring up trouble. Second, an African genocide is erupting in Nigeria, as a ruthless dictatorship (propped up by wild carders) wages war on its neighbors. A team of Committee aces must learn what's going on and stop the violence, with help from new aces like the Angel of Mercy and Snowblind.

Lastly, a hurricane is heading right for New Orleans. Amazing Bubbles, Earth Witch, the Gardener, and Bugsy find themselves the city's only line of defense... unless they can persuade an angry young ace to work with them.

Meanwhile, a nuclear explosion destroys a tiny Texas town and its tapped-out oilfields, raising fears of Islamic terrorism. But the truth is even more terrifying and a new kind of arms race erupts, throwing the world's balance of power out the window.

Martin and his team of writers have taken the series to a new level. Fulfilling the promise of Inside Straight, the previous entry in this long-running series, Busted Flush digs into social and political commentary like a tiger among rabbits. It is no accident that the Committee faces these particular crises; similarly, the other major storyline draws some unmistakable parallels to terrorism and the reaction to it. It's a sharply drawn discussion about power and its limitations, when applied to real world situations.

Stitching together the diverse threads of this mosaic novel is "Double Helix" by Melinda Snodgrass, wherein she recounts in first person the doings of a remarkable ace. The character is in a downward moral spiral, one Snodgrass paints with exceptional skill, and the danger is that this person will end up taking down thousands or millions of lives as well-- though not in the way you might expect. It is perhaps the single best story in the book, with more than its share of heartache.

Speaking of heartache, Ian Tregillis and Walton Simons bring it in buckets in "Political Science," the tale of a secret government lab engaged in very hands-on research. The standouts here are Genetrix and Drake Thomas. When the Justice Department gets involved, in the person of killing-machine ace Billy Ray, these two partake in misadventures ranging from deadly serious to goofily lighthearted, while Billy must deal with a number of crises of his own. Billy's story continues in "Mortality's Strong Hand" by John Jos. Miller, wherein Billy realizes most of his problems can't be punched or kicked.

Cameo deals with some not-quite-philosophical issues in Kevin Andrew Murphy's "Tears of Nepthys," while Amazing Bubbles fights some personal and professional battles amid a hurricane in "Coulda Woulda Shoulda" by Caroline Spector. Africa's civil wars boil over in three short tales by Victor Milàn. Also, American Hero finalist Curveball resolves an outstanding problem in "Just Cause" by Carrie Vaughn, and a mission into the Middle East challenges a heroic ace in "Dirge in a Major Key" by S.L. Farrell.

There are some great new characters in the mix, particularly Hoodoo Mama (perhaps the most foul-mouthed person in the series), Sharky, the Racist (a superfast bigot), and Tinker (an Australian gadgeteer), as well as the Lama and the Llama (don't get them mixed up). Some lesser-known characters make strong showings as well, such as Flint and the Highwayman. The cast of the novel is big but the authors never lose track of who does what when (a feat of editing and coordination that suggests Martin has an ace of his own).

In the previous novel, Inside Straight, the writers explored what it takes to be a hero. Now, those heroes take it to the next step and have to prove their mettle over and over again. The stories focus on the common theme of what does it mean to save the world, to use one's abilities to make a difference, and what price does that exact? Where does one draw the line between right and wrong when the problems are so gigantic? It's a battle for each character; some win, some lose and some are lost in that space between. And not everyone makes it out alive.

Busted Flush is a strong, compassionate and ultimately uplifting book, dealing with our most fundamental and topical issues. Like all great fiction, it isn't afraid to take a point of view and defend it savagely; however, it makes many of its most penetrating points with subtlety and eloquent wit.

I can't wait to see what they do next.

Fans of the series will love the novel, but fans of thought-provoking SF will find compelling reasons to read this book.

Strongly recommended.

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