the Little Red Reviewer

Wild Cards: Aces Abroad, edited by George R R Martin

Posted on: February 16, 2015

wild cards fourWild Cards IV: Aces Abroad, edited by George R. R. Martin

published in 1988, with new material added and republished by Tor Books in January 2015

Where I got it: received review copy from Tor (thanks!)











Wild Cards: Aces Abroad is the fourth book in a shared universe anthology series. The good news is that you can easily read this as a stand alone, and the better news is that it’ll all make way more sense if I give you just a little bit of background about the series.


Started in the late 1980s, the Wild Cards shared universe  envisions an alternative history where our first contact with an alien species causes the Wild Card virus to be released into Earth’s atmosphere. The virus killed much of the population, and physically affected nearly all who survived, granting them superpowers or horrid mutations. Some people grew wings and could fly, others turned into grotesque parodies of human beings. If your gift was a boon, you became known as an Ace, and if your gift came with physical deformaties, you became known as a Joker. Many Aces became successful business owners and celebrities, whereas society had no idea what to do with the Jokers, these hideous creatures who used to be our parents, friends and neighbors. As the decades passed, Jokers became more accepted in society, but many still reside in ghettos and fear for their own safety. Many of the characters in Wild Cards reminded me more of X-Men characters rather than traditional “good guy” superheroes. Most of these people want to live their life in peace, and help their friends and families. None of these people are traditional comic book superheroes.



I’ve certainly read themed anthologies before, but I’ve never read a shared universe. Each author was credited in the table of contents, and again the first time their writing appears in the volume. But after that, it’s just chapter after chapter, and if you aren’t paying attention it’s easy to forget which author’s work you are reading.  The fact that eleven authors (Stephen Leigh, George R.R. Martin, John J. Miller, Leanne C. Harper, Gail Gerstner-Miller, Walton Simmons, Edward Bryant, Lewis Shiner, Victor W. Milan, Melinda M. Snodgrass and Michael Cassutt) could seamlessly put  novel together, and then 25 years later two more authors (Kevin Andrew Murphy and Carrie Vaughn) could slip their new stories in unnoticed is pretty damn incredible.

The plot of Aces Abroad focuses around a government sponsored World Tour. Staring in New York,  Politicans, famous Aces, well respected Jokers, and a few media members are jet setting around the planet, to see how Jokers are faring elsewhere in the world. They’ll visit Haiti, Peru, France, South Africa, Egypt,  Jerusalem, Afghanistan, China, Korea and elsewhere, all with the goal of giving Jokers everywhere hope that someone, somewhere, cares about their lives and is doing something to help them. The actual story is more about the social interactions between the Aces and Jokes on the trip (most of whom already have a history with each other), and far less about the international state of Jokers.


Written in the 80s, this is *such* a cold war book. Cultural stereotypes abound, with many non-western cultures shown in an unflattering light, and I wasn’t a fan of that.  You can tell just by reading the book who America’s enemies were at the time. Female characters too, are often treated paternalistically. I found it laughably silly that one of the female Aces had no idea she was four months pregnant, and then saddened when she was treated like a child incapable of making her own decisions for the rest of the book.


Ensemble casts aren’t usually my thing, and as is my bad habit, I latched onto a few interesting characters and paid closer attention to their stories. The characters I found most interesting were Xavier Desmond (written primarily by George R R Martin), and Senator Gregg Hartmann (written primarily by Stephen Leigh).  Desmond, a Joker, is the Mayor of Jokertown. Observant and authentic, he genuinely cares about those around him. Treated like shit for most of his adult life due to his physical mutations, he’s still able to see the best in people. Dying of cancer, this will be his last trip away from his home.  I looked forward to reading his chapters, because I enjoyed his point of view of people around him. He seemed to be the only person who didn’t have ulterior motives. Senator Gregg Hartmann, on the other hand, is pure ulterior motive. Hiding his horrible secret, he has split off the part of his mind with the power to turn others into mental puppets. Constantly fighting his alter ego, Gregg attempts to balance what he wants with what his alter ego demands. As a person I despised him, but it was interesting to see the trouble that followed him and how he got out of it.


I really enjoyed the first quarter or so of Aces Abroad. Around the halfway point though, I found myself getting bored. There were plenty of plot lines started, but very little seemed to be actually going anywhere. New characters would be introduced, never to be seen again. This book is 500+ pages long, and honestly it would have made a fantastic 300 page novel.  The further I read, the less I enjoyed myself. I finished the book just to see if anything interesting was going to happen. And yes, something very interesting did happen, a plot twist that will most certainly affect the rest of the books in the series (there are a total of 17).


If you enjoy darker, grimmer superhero fiction, you’ll probably get a kick out of the Wild Cards series. It’s certainly got a weight of history, that knowing feeling that these characters have decades of history, years of successes and disappointments. Unfortunately, superhero stories rarely do it for me, and I tend to fall apart when it comes to following a large ensemble, so this just didn’t work for me.


Have you read any of Wild Cards books? what did you think?
These are edited by George R R Martin. If you’ve only read his Song of Ice and Fire novels, are you interested in reading anything else he’s been involved with?



9 Responses to "Wild Cards: Aces Abroad, edited by George R R Martin"

I have never read these books, but I love the idea of a group writing effort like this. Might have to check it out one of these days!


I’ve not read any of them either. The only shared universe books I’ve read – that I can think of off the top, you know – are the Larry Niven Man-Kzin books. Niven may have another shared universe series too… There was also a set of books with the overall title of FLEET, by David Drake, but I’m not sure if other writer chimed in on that one at any point.


There were some other Fleet books I enjoyed, Niven wrote them with Edward Lerner, i think?


You may be thinking of the Lost Fleet series, a different entity.


I do like the idea of an anthology where all the stories shared the same universe but, to be honest, this one probably wouldn’t be for me.
The only other book I’ve read by GRRM is Fevre Dream which I really did enjoy.
Lynn 😀


I’ve not read any of the Wild Cards books. I have read A Song of Ice and Fire and Fevre Dream. I really want to read all of the Dunk and Egg stories, but just haven’t gotten to them yet. One of these days.


I’ve read Song of Ice & Fire, Fevre Dream, Windhaven, and Dying of the Light by GRRM, but I never got into these (and I’ve wondered if I should). The X-men-ness of it seems interesting, but I expect I would probably have the same complaints as you have.


I read and absolutely LOVED the Song of Ice and Fire series, but I have not read another works of his work.
I had heard of this series before, but didn’t know much about it. Maybe I will give this one a go.


I’ve read all of the Wild Cards books, having started when the books started to come out in the eighties, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The way GRRM and his cohorts manage to weave such wonderfully intricate but separate stories, having them all meet up in a mind-blowing climax at the end, is nothing short of incredible; and the further you go through the books, the more you are drawn in by the shared history, in some ways very like ours, and in other ways very, very different.

I can’t say enough about the Wild Cards universe of books, and I recommend them to anyone who loves alternate universes and science fiction-based, but very realistically-grounded, “superheroes.”

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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