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Inside Straight: A Wild Cards Novel    edited by George R. R. Martin order for
Inside Straight
by George R. R. Martin
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2008 (2008)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though Inside Straight can be enjoyed standalone, there are references to the earlier books in the series, making it preferable to read at least some of them first. I'm not sure how I missed the Wild Cards phenomenon up till now, but I did. Many excellent writers have created story in this shared universe, originated and edited by one of the greats of fantasy/SF, George R. R. Martin. Its premise is that an alien virus changed the world in 1946, killing ninety percent and morphing the majority of survivors into deformed jokers and superpowered aces - with the usual mix of heroes and villains amongst them.

This linked collection of tales by different authors is connected by ace Jonathan Hive's blog (actually written by one of my fantasy favorites, Daniel Abraham, author of the excellent Long Price Quartet.) Jonathan Hive, a journalist whose power allows him to transform to and from a swarm of wasps, auditions for American Hero, planning to write a story about it. After Jonathan Hive's introductory blog, Melinda M. Snodgrass's short story presents another ace, Lilith, who acts as a hitwoman and takes out the Caliph (who's been uniting Arab states for a new jihad) in his Baghdad harem. Lilith's abilities come in handy for assassination - she can alter her appearance and teleport.

After this thrilling start, there's a slow build-up of stories introducing us to the various aces and the interactions between them on American Hero. I enjoyed learning about their different abilities and seeing them in action on the set. Essentially, aces are divided into teams. If a team loses a challenge, they have to vote one member off the team - not a congenial process. While all this simmers, the killing of the Caliph results in a backlash against the region's jokers - innocent men, women and children. The best part of Inside Straight occurs when reality takes over from reality television and a bunch of rather spoilt aces discover what it takes to turn themselves into real life heroes.

Jonathan Hive muses in his final blog about what he's learned: 'Do the right thing. Cherish your friends; you don't know how long you get to have them. You're flawed and weak, but that's okay; just do the best you can.' Oh, and he has a new job too, on a U.N. Committee - tune in for future episodes to find out what that's all about.

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