Top critical review
Surprised not to enjoy it so much...
on 6 September 2008
The Wild Cards series has always been one that I've heard about, one that was very well received, and I really liked the idea of a book written by many different authors, including new talent. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed by Inside Straight, the 18th Wild Card novel, despite it having some really commendable points.
It's over fifty years since the mysterious alien virus killed off 90% of the people it infected, left most of the rest deformed "freaks", and left just a few percent, Ace's, with special powers. Inside Straight features an essentially new cast of characters (though the old ones are referenced often by the younger generation of Ace's). And now, in 2008, a reality TV show, American Hero, a reality TV show with Ace's as the stars, is about to begin... The early Ace's used their powers to help the world, and became legends; in their shadows, decades later, the next generation will be TV personalities...
Inside Straight did a good job of commenting on the public being more interested in superhero "freaks" battling it out on a reality TV show, than a crisis in the rest of the world, but the first part of the novel moved too slowly and left me a bit frustrated. Although the scheming and the back-biting that went on behind the scenes of the reality show was quite interesting, and often funny, it went on a bit long, and, even though these people had special powers, if I'd wanted to see this I could have just watched Big Brother or American Idol (more fun than our UK counterpart, by the way!) rather than read a SF novel.
Of much more interest to me were the scenes in a quite alternate Egypt. I liked the way mythology was played around with there, too -- the alien virus from the previous books having turned some of the Ace's into Living Gods, with attributes similar to the gods of mythology, and Thoth and Osiris show up, which is always good. Speaking of the virus, with Inside Straight being the book to introduce new people to the Wild Cards alternate universe, it would have been good to see more about the virus -- why some people died, others being horribly ruined, and a rarer few got special powers. I can understand why the authors didn't necessarily want to reiterate stuff that might have been shown in earlier novels, but it would have been useful, and interesting, for a newbie.
If I hadn't read the blurb (and known about it before!) I'd not have realised that nine different authors worked on this project. The different parts and characters are woven together seamlessly. When I reviewed Hunter's Run, a collaboration of three writers (two of which, George R.R. Martin & Daniel Abraham, write in Inside Straight), I commented on how surprised I was at how well the different pieces from different authors went together. With nine writers, that's even more of a phenomenal achievement.
The comments, throughout the book, on the public being more interested in superhero "freaks" battling it out on a reality TV show, than a crisis in the rest of the world, were clever and funny. The Middle East "situation" also plays a large part in this novel, Inside Straight opening in fact, with an assassination that is about to cause havoc ... which, of course, the general public care nothing about, being more interested in whether Drummer Boy will make out with every girl in the American Hero house. I also really liked the "blog posts" by Jonathan Hive (Daniel Abraham) in general, as they brought a kind of over-arching narration to the whole thing. He was, with the rather strange but cool ability to turn bits (or the entirety) of his body into wasps, and a sour disposition, one of my favourite characters.
I think it was the hype that did this one in for me. A lot of things in Inside Straight are brilliant, but I had higher expectations than perhaps were fair. It's a good book, with generally interesting characters, a good second half (after the quite slow first), and is very cleverly written. But, and this really annoys me, I'm still ever so slightly disappointed.