Busted Flush: A Wild Cards Novel
George R.R. Martin (editor) and featuring Melinda M. Snodgrass, Stephen Leigh, Victor Milán, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Walton Simons, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis and Carrie Vaughn
400 pp. Tor. $24.95
Pub. Date: 12/9/2008
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
“Let me get this straight,” Tom said. “You cause nuclear explosions?”
“Yes! Haven’t you been listening? When I get real scared I fucking blow up. Are you some kind of tard?” The spasm of anger passed and his eyes gushed tears again. “I wish I was dead. I’m too dangerous to be around!” – “Busted Flush”
There is an undeniable meta-fictional aspect to a science fiction novel that is written by a talented group of writers which is centered on a team of superheroes. Teamwork is essential in both cases in order to achieve success. One mistake by a hero and people die. Similarly, one mistake by a writer and the reader suffers (there are some things worse than death). Individually then, each writer mimics the heroes they write about as both are responsible for the completion of a specific task that contributes to a greater goal. And like all superteams, the quality of the team is dictated by the quality of its members. One weak link and the team goes from being the X-Men to being Alpha Flight. So the inherent difficulty in producing a mosaic novel is in assembling a top-notch team of writers. To write about the Amazing Bubbles and Drummer Boy, you need to have Action-Packed Plot Man and Snappy Dialogue Girl in your Legion of SuperLiterati. (Episodic writing for a television series also parallels the writing of a mosaic novel. Once again, the quality of each individual episode contributes to the overall quality of the show.)
Foremost, you need someone responsible for assembling the team. Assuming the Professor X role here for the latest Wild Card-themed mosaic novel “Busted Flush” is the incomparable George R.R. Martin. In his editorial stewardship, Martin has assembled a fantastic collection of talent. Stephen Leigh (writing as S.L. Farrell), Victor Milán, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Walton Simons, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis, Carrie Vaughn and Melinda M. Snodgrass all make valuable contributions to the novel. There are no weak links in this collection. Snodgrass, in particular, really shines with some beautifully written interludes. She is so talented and underrated that people should probably be chained to desks and forced to read her. She’s the glue of the story and the literary Batman of the team.
As a group, the writers have created an intensely powerful and intelligent novel filled with political and social context seemingly ripped from today’s headlines. Populated with beautifully developed and extremely complex characters, “Busted Flush” goes beyond the two dimensional superheroes in comics. These superheroes have that additional dimension often missing from their comic brethren—human complexity. They live, love, do good, make mistakes, and most importantly, they must cope. Cope with their power and its repercussions. And like in real life some do it better than others. Throughout all this angst and drama though, “Busted Flush” never degenerates into a soap opera when it very easily could have. Like Martin’s fantasy series The Sword of Ice and Fire, the tone is firmly adult without being exuberantly over-the-top. So elements which on the surface would appear to be salacious or seemingly ridiculous like one hero’s lesbian experience during a hurricane or another hero being a hermaphrodite come off as believable in the course of the book. For these seemingly outlandish incidents to seem believable, the characters must work. And they work incredibly well here.
John Fortune and his U.N.-sponsored team of aces known as the Committee find themselves contending with three separate world incidents. In the oil region of
The world is also in the grips of a terrible oil shortage which has sent oil prices skyrocketing. Prince Siraj of the Caliphate has manipulated oil production in order to artificially induce the crisis (as well as financially benefit from the higher prices). The U.N. has deemed Prince Siraj’s actions to be, in essence, economic terrorism. A Committee team lead by Drummer Boy is assigned to the region to support U.N. troops in opening up oil production.
Meanwhile, a tremendous explosion has obliterated the town of
Interspersed throughout the novel are interludes focusing on the ace Noel Matthews who not only has the ability to teleport, but also the ability to shape-change into other personas. One of his alter-egos, Lilith, is an active member of the Committee, while another, Bahir, is a confidante of Prince Siraj. To complicate matters, Noel himself is a double agent working for a British organization called the Silver Helix. While caring for his dying father, Noel (through the appropriate persona) must often run conflicting errands for the Committee and Prince Siraj. Noel’s life though suddenly changes when he is sent in pursuit of Niobe and Drake.
Though it deals with hot button topics like the problems in
All the characters are wonderfully imagined, and the interpersonal drama between them rings true. Niobe and Drake’s relationship is poignant and extremely touching as both of them must learn how to cope with tremendous personal loss. Noel must undertake a journey of self-discovery, finding out who he is apart from his personas. John, Kate and Michael must find out who they truly love. Michelle must deal with betraying the trust of people that care about her. These are real problems, and like real problems they often don’t have simple answers. It’s this tremendous character complexity that makes “Busted Flush” such an absolute success. The characters live and breathe. How else could a character named the Amazing Bubbles whose power is shooting out bubbles be not only believed, but embraced?
Of the various storylines, the least engaging is the one in which the aces open up the Caliphate’s oil production. This is mainly due to the lack of an interesting foil in this scenario. While the Africa team must contend with the misguided and completely insane Radical and the
A stunningly powerful and smart novel, “Busted Flush” features an amazing level of character complexity and interaction. George R.R. Martin has assembled an incredible team of writers who through hard teamwork and long training sessions have accomplished one hell of a goal—writing one of the best science fiction books of the year.
Final Grade: 85 out of 100