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Book Review: Suicide Kings edited by George R. R. Martin

# Genre: Superhero, Action-Adventure, Alternate History
# Hardcover: 448 pages
# Publisher: Tor Books
# Publication Date: December 22, 2009
# ISBN-10: 0765317834
# ISBN-13: 978-0765317834
# Author Websites: George R. R. Martin, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Daniel Abraham, Victor Milan, S. L. Farell, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis

Reading Suicide Kings was this reviewer’s first ever encounter with a Wild Cards novel. The Wild Card is a virus, released over New York in 1946 by aliens, that alters human DNA. The majority of those infected die, some become disfigured jokers with no or useless powers, and an even smaller subset gain superhuman abilities. These “aces” have changed the world, sometimes for good, sometimes not.

Commonly known as a “mosaic” novel, the narrative is written by several different authors, each first creating and then writing different character plotlines into a cohesive whole. Edited by George R. R. Martin with assistance by Melinda M. Snodgrass, the book is primarily written by Snodgrass, Daniel Abraham, S. L. Farell, Victor Milan, Caroline Spector, and Ian Tregellis.

In this third book of the revived Wild Cards (Inside Straight and Busted Flush being the previous two) many plot lines intertwine. There is the story of the walking tank Rustbelt and the plant master Gardener. Rustbelt is a simple man from the Midwest who has been carrying on a correspondence with a boy in the People’s Paradise of Africa (formerly the Congo and surrounding countries). But when that boy stops writing Rustbelt back, he teams up with Gardener to find him. But what they find is more than they bargained for.

There is the story of Bubbles. Bubbles had previously saved New Orleans from a nuclear explosion with her ability to absorb shock by becoming fatter. This is a carryover story from a previous novel, but her story begins to intertwine with Rustbelt and Gardener’s.

Then there is Noel Matthews, the former British secret agent turned family man who gets drawn into the events in the Congo because if his relationship with the leader of the Arab world.

There is the villain, known as the Radical, who is very nearly the most powerful ace on earth, and quite obviously off his rocker. He serves the PPA as they commit heinous crimes against their own people. All of them, each in their own way, has an impact on the fate of the PPA.

And there is Bugsy, the white Anglo-Saxon protestant joker-ace whose ability to become a swarm of wasps is a great play on words, and whose task for the United Nations is to solve the riddle of the Radical’s past.

This is definitively a novel for adults. There are frank discussions of sex and even some rather graphic depictions. Some of the characters are quite angry, and are not afraid to use coarse language to get their point across. This is often part and parcel of the character and makes sense in context, but for those easily offended by harsh language or sexual content, this is not a novel you will likely enjoy.

Like the TV show Heroes or Alan Moore’s Watchmen the moral ambiguity of the characters is a dominating element of the tale. Most want to do good, but they live in a world of uncertainty, and each has chosen a path (constantly questioned) about how “good” is to be done in the world. These are superheroes to be sure, but they are also human beings with all of the fallibility that implies. They are as mixed up as anyone. Only Rustbelt and the Radical are sure of their purpose, but even they begin to question themselves in the face of what happen to them and those they love or trust.

At times, the narrative could be a little hard to follow. There are a lot of characters, some of whom have backstories which are alluded to but not complete. Readers of the two preceding novels will no doubt have an advantage over others. But it is not so much that the story cannot be enjoyed to the full without having read the other novels. It takes some effort to acclimate to all the different perspectives, but once you do, the variety that is engendered by having so many authors and points of view adds a level of enjoyment that just could not be found any other way.

The tale itself if quite sad. In the Wild Cards universe, although the joker and aces have changed the world in some ways, much of history has continued and many of the historical events we are familiar with still happen in slightly different contexts. The authors used this opportunity to write a novel that highlights some of the worst things that are happening in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Congo. At the forefront is the horror that is the child soldier, and it is in the salvation of these that we see the righteousness of the heroes. Each hero is driven to save the children for different reasons, but all can agree that it must be done.

But this theme does not dampen the adventure part of the novel. There are sad, even horrific moments (these authors do not shy away from depicting the worst) but at its core the story is about a group of superheroes working together to stop a madman – the plot of pretty much every superhero comic. And with their superpowers, these characters get to do that in a really flashy way.

Because of the authors’ style, what the reader will find is a no-nonsense novel that tackles world issues and events head-on, not afraid to make a statement even as they entertain. This is not a novel that can be read purely for enjoyment, especially when taking into account that even the horrors depicted in Suicide Kings are miniscule in comparison with the reality. But at the same time, we suspect that the heroes will be successful in their quest, and so we are given an opportunity in this alternate universe to see how things could be different. We are allowed a brief moment to hope for a better tomorrow.

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