Mass market paperback, 563 pagesAcquired June 2012
Published 2012 (originally 2011)
Read August 2015
edited by George R.R. Martin, assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass
I've never read a volume of Wild Cards before, and this is the twenty-first, an installment of a shared-universe anthology series that's been running since 1987, on and off. This volume is a "mosaic novel," which means it's a number of short stories and novellas woven together around a central plot; some stories you get in one part, some in three, and one in 18! It's a storytelling format I haven't seen much, but have enjoyed when the Bernice Summerfield books have tried it.
Well, I don't know if the other Wild Cards tales are any good, but I didn't like it here. The problem is that this is 563 pages of small print, but I was never invested in the story, making it a very long slog. I don't know which of these characters have appeared in earlier volumes, but even if they had, this book ought to have made me care about them more. The real spine of the book is "The Rat Race" by Cherie Priest, about a cop investigating a cold case, and I just could not have cared less about him or whether he succeeded. There are a lot of characters in this strand whose relationships the reader is never really sold on, and they need to be-- the ending totally depends on you being invested in two of them, a newspaper editor and a squid priest. There was another strand, "Faith" by John Jos. Miller, that was supposed to make you care about the squid priest, but all it did for me was layer on flashbacks full of confusing details.
Various other stories also intersect with this ongoing story, like "Snake Up Above" by David Anthony Durham (and a number of other stories; this strand is the only one with separate titles for each installment) about a snake kid who ends up witnessing a crime relevant to Priest's tale, and "...And All the Sinners Saints" by Victor Milán and Ty Franck, about his public defender and what he's doing in the meantime. Oh, and "Sanctuary" by Mary Anne Mohanraj, which seems to have little substance beyond extolling the sexy, sexy virtues of m/f/f threesomes. (Speaking of which, the book is surprisingly male gaze-y given it's co-edited by a woman; women are always being leered at, but the reverse barely ever happens.) I liked "Snake Up Above" at first, but the more it tied into the "main" plot of Fort Freak, the less it interested me. There just didn't seem to be anything at stake for the reader. I don't know if the writers were assuming I bought into the characters because I'd theoretically read earlier volumes, but it seems a bad assumption for a book that prints "GEORGE R.R. MARTIN" on the cover in giant letters, obviously hoping to lure in casual purchasers who have watched Game of Thrones on HBO and probably haven't read the preceding twenty(!) books. If these characters haven't appeared before, or if this was supposed to be written to engage a new reader, then it failed to succeed regardless.
There are also a few stories that aren't spread out, but just occur in big lumps at various points. I found these a little weird, as their uninterrupted nature means they feel important, as one plot comes to the forefront for a tenth of the book. But they're actually the least relevant to the ongoing plots. The first is assistant editor Melinda M. Snodgrass's "The Rook," about a rookie cop who barely appears in the rest of the book. I think this story poisoned the well for me, as it portrays most of the cops at Fort Freak as insular, corrupt, selfish jerks-- the guys who in theory are starring in the whole book. Its rookie protagonist is also kind of a jerk himself, and watching a jerk try to ingratiate himself with jerks doesn't really do much for me. It's made worse by the afterschool special ending, where after the rookie does one clever thing, everyone accepts him and all is forgiven.
Even more spuriously connected to the rest of Fort Freak is "More!" by Paul Cornell, about an aspiring British actress trying to make it in New York City. Cornell's story is in the first person, unusually for the book ("The Rook" is the only other story to be so), and it has an engaging voice and a sort of farcical plot-- in a good way. I didn't love it, but I did like it, and it was probably the best part of the book. Which makes the fact it had nothing to do with it telling, I suppose. I also enjoyed the also-largely-irrelevant "The Straight Man" by Kevin Andrew Murphy, which was a pretty decent police procedural tale; would it be that more of the book had been like these two. Definitely my first Wild Cards book... almost certainly my last...