Wild Cards II: Aces High is the second volume in the Wild Cards shared universe series edited by SF rock star George R. R. Martin. I read the first volume in the series last year after I picked up a copy at Worldcon. I finally got around to reading the second volume and below is my review.
Quick recap: the first book in the series acted as an origin story for the entire universe. Technically an alternate history, an alien virus is released in Earth atmosphere in 1946 over New York City and eventually spreads across the world. Most of the infected die within moments of catching the disease. A few (un)lucky ones survive, but are transformed into hideous monsters, called “Jokers.” An even smaller number are lucky enough to gain superpowers, known as “Aces.” These Aces are the heroes (and villains) of the Wild Cards universe, but unlike most mainstream comics, Wild Cards tries to be more realistic about what people would do if they got superpowers. These are characters who have serious flaws, but also great strengths. All have their own moral compasses, but don’t have hard and fast rules about not taking lives. Jokers have to deal with foe even greater than the worst supervillain: discrimination from humans because of how they look. There aren’t even any real supervillains in this universe. Criminals, yes, but no one seems motivated to be evil simply for the sake of being evil.
The first volume contains stories covering events from the 1940s to the 1980s. Except for the various stories focusing on characters dealing with their new found powers (or trauma), most of the stories can be read as stand-alones. Aces High, however, is more of a “mosaic” novel, with a collection of authors writing different stories connected by a larger plot. Following immediately after events of the first volume, a new alien threat is bearing down on Earth and there are Aces, Jokers, humans, and aliens who are either trying to stop it or ensure its arrival. Don’t expect the Avengers or the Justice League. There are no team-ups or epic battles. Many work to help, or hinder, the survival of humanity without ever seeing past their own selfish desires. They are blinded to the big picture because they lack the perspective, even the powerful Aces, to see the real threat.
I enjoyed the Lovecraftian references, the bizarre Captain Trips, the tragic tale of Modular Man, and seeing what sacrifices you must make if you want to keep a secret identity. Although there was a battle, calling it epic would be a misnomer. It would be like saying fighting in mud-filled trenches of World War I, where pain and death is everywhere, was “epic.” Despite some great stories in the mix, I felt the ending to be rather abrupt. Still those who liked to read about real humans with extraordinary powers should check out the Wild Cards series.