Adam Christopher's Empire State is an interesting novel, to say the least; but it's interesting for its concepts more than its content, which is unfortunate when the concepts are delivered through the content, albeit in rather infodumping form.

The plot of Empire State is hard to describe, as is the novel itself; secondary-world noir, perhaps, is the best descriptor, but the plot has little content beyond explaining that.  Essentially, a murder investigation spirals out into a huge, world-shaking set of overlapping, and ill-explained, events and plots which are variously misconceived, hidden, or underexplained and driven only by dei ex machinae heaped on top of each other until the whole edifice creaks and crumbles with each rapid-fire twist and turn; that's when the broken story-telling style doesn't end up with events happening backwards or sideways, or with the disjointed narrative leaping around without any real sense of what's happening or clarity.  The consistency of the problem is disturbing, and really makes this a hard novel to read.

The characters are just as bad; from Rad Bradley, our main character, down, every single individual in Empire State is consistent only in their one-dimensionality and cod mysteriousness.  I say cod, because that mysteriousness really isn't terribly well conveyed; instead of making characters mysteries, Christopher instead uses statements that go nowhere, false trails that avoid conclusion and aren't actually followed up on, and on many an occasion, a musing of Bradley's that just is dropped as soon as plot or convenience demand and allow.  Rather than constructing a noirish and strange-yet-mundane world, Christopher's efforts in Empire State actually combine to create a confused, and indeed confusing, mess of characters and plot; we have no clear-cut clarity, except where we're having information fed to us in a rather constrained and over-basic manner.

I'd really like to have enjoyed Empire State, and Christopher's attempts to bring in superhero and noir to his work looked like they could have been fascinating; but in the end this novel just spends far too long trying to be mysterious, and not enough time being, well, anything.
Prologue by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s prologue to the Wild Cards series, as well as this instalment in it, sets up the backstory quite efficiently, albeit in a slightly “As you know…” manner; however, since it’s presented as an oral history, that works incredibly well. Indeed, the different voices of the story, and their slightly-overlapping timeframes and deeply-at-odds perspectives are very realistic, and really give a sense of what was going on. Good stuff.

30 Minutes Over Broadway! by Howard Waldrop
Waldrop’s story is brilliant; the title belies the seriousness of it, and yet there is humour there too. Jetboy’s a wonderful character, a kid prodigy well-written and thoughtfully put together who has the benefits and the downsides of his history presented well, especially losing touch with his past; and Dr. Tod is a brilliantly Blofeldian villain, with all that implies about his motives and characterisation. However, the story does excellently address the roots of the Wild Cards universe, as well as being well-written and with a brilliant squib on the comic book industry reminiscent of certain bits of Captain America.

The Sleeper by Roger Zelazny
Zelazny’s Sleeper is fantastic; it takes the idea of the wild card virus and extends it, from a general wild card – where each individual infected is affected differently – to a specific; Croyd Crenson is repeatedly changed, from ace to joker and all variants between. Zelazny plays this neatly, with hibernation between each phase, and Crenson slowly catching on to his best course of action; we also see him leaving his normal humanity behind, especially in contrast to Bentley, who was turned into a joker and cured, never losing the humanity that he had. Indeed, The Sleeper really does go into the effect on one’s humanity of the wild card virus, and combined with a strong plot (albeit also a heavy-handed anti-drugs message!) it creates a really good story introducing us properly to the Wild Cards world.

Witness by Walter Jon Williams
Williams takes on one of the worst American domestic excesses of the Cold War in Witness; his story is about HUAC, and about its effects on those it called – both those who spoke, and those who didn’t. Williams’ core cast – Earl Sanderson, a Paul Robeson-style ace; Jack Braun, all-American farmboy with super strength; David Harstein, the Jewish charisma-exuded; and Archibald Holmes, their non-wild carded handler (à la Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, without the anonymity) – are all very different, and individually and well written; it’s obvious from the off that the story is driven by politics because everything is framed in those terms, and especially in terms of Braun’s (our viewpoint character’s) apathy towards such. The climax of the story is the HUAC hearings, and everything hinges on those; we see everything going upwards, and after HUAC it all falls apart for the cast, and lives are destroyed. It’s a really brilliant, and also damning, piece of work, that won’t let the evil of the communist witch-hunt be forgotten.

Degradation Rites by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Snodgrass’ story is quite the dark one, really; indeed, dark on a level Witness didn’t manage to reach, continuing on from there effectively. Told from the point of view of Dr. Tachyon, it tells of the burgeoning relationship between himself and Blythe van Renssaeler, an ace with the power to absorb minds completely (akin to Rogue, but without draining the original person). Tying into Witness directly, we see the relationship take strength… and then HUAC imposes itself, and things turn very dark; people end up destroyed, and Snodgrass is merciless and relentless in her treatment of the effects of it on both Blythe and Dr. Tachyon. If this is the theme of the book and series, Wild Cards appears to be a very grim and bleak universe.

Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace by Michael Cassutt
Captain Cathode… is another great story about the effect of the wild card virus on individuals; and another really, really dark one. Coming seemingly some time after the HUAC hearings and their fallout, we still have jokers being outcast and aces treated with suspicion, but there’s less Red Scare combined with it, and jokers are more like an underclass than anything else. The characters are up to the usual excellent standard of this mosaic novel, and the ability of Cassutt to make them real people is brilliant. The darkness at the heart of the story is an inevitable one, and less surprising as time goes on (though occasionally there is a false trail laid); but the variety of cards shown is fantastic, contributing to a colourful, effective story.

Powers by David D. Levine
Levine’s telling of the U-2 Incident in 1960, the dying days of Eisenhower’s Presidency, is shot through with accurate history, and reads like a better class of Tom Clancy novel; indeed, we even have an intelligence analyst as hero, a Polish-White Russian ace. The whole story’s combination of real-world and Wild Card history and mythology is brilliantly played, since it really does have some excellent characterisation and the style is pitch-perfect for the content. It’s also the first in this collection not to be dark; it certainly has dark moments, but in the end Levine has constructed something which is really quite happy, and is certainly well written. Wonderful stuff.

Shell Games by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s story is brilliant; we’re talking pure 1930s-50s pulps, here. This story could be retitled the Redemption of Dr Tachyon or the Rise of the Superhero, since it’s both those things; we see equally a tactical superhero – the Turtle, a brilliantly thought out idea that really does deserve it’s own full comic series, because it’s just so fun – and Tachyon at his lowest ebb and his recovery from it. It’s a powerful story also in showing how far the wild cards fall in the world, and the Civil Rights parallels are not exactly made subtly, but work effectively for all that. This is a rather nice, and quite uplifting story, and Martin’s obvious homage to the pulps is all the better for its respect for the source the material.

The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato by Lewis Shiner
Shiner’s story is not a terribly good one; it seems, in many ways, to be an excuse to write about occultism and tantric sex (indeed, just eroticism generally), and to treat women as objects, without really hanging it together in a decent frame. After all, Shiner’s use of the wild card virus is so different from anything we’ve seen previously, in a rather ridiculous way; and the whole story is premised on some really rather disturbing ideas about people. That the plot’s quite poor and thin and the characterisations even worse doesn’t help this at all; in the end, it’s occultism and prurience, and nothing more.

Transfigurations by Victor Milán
Milán’s story is a really mixed one. The wild cards seem to come into play really late into the story, and without any real logic – especially that of Grabowski, which seems oddly timed convenient only to the story, and not to the logic of the virus or his life. The characterisation is also quite two dimensional, with Mark Meadows the typical geek who can’t quite be hip, and Grabowski a middlebrow rightwing counter-counter-culture thug motivated by religion and his past; in fact, the extent to which Grabowski’s past isn’t itself coherent and seems to have been left so far behind in his character is itself problematic. The whole plot’s a bit strawman-based, and in the end, this story doesn’t stand up under the weight it tries to take onto itself.

Down Deep by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper
This Vietnam-and-Watergate era story is quite a strange one, a real mix of light and dark. Not without problems – the centrality to one of our narratives of rape, and of the helplessness of a woman to do anything but be a nurturer, is one such – the narrative does work remarkably well as the disparate elements come together. There are strange moments – for instance, the lack of police repercussions for the acts of the Mafia, and the lack of any real motivation for some of our characters to act as they do, especially since at other times they appear to be content to be much more passive as the narrative demands. It is, however, a satisfying story, in the end, and that, really, is what we ask of it.

Strings by Stephen Leigh

Strings is quite a plain story, really; it taps into some American mythology with its own version of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam movement for that matter, but makes it really quite a dark, damning one, attacking those movements in many ways; it’s also a really quite obvious story, which telegraphs its twists far too early on to really make it at all surprising. Indeed, we’re lacking in curveballs or (terribly) compelling characters, instead using excessive tragedy and poorly-concealed “twists” to try to avoid having such things; it’s a bit of a disappointment, but it does fill in some gaps in Wild Cards history, even if the ending’s very anticlimactic.

Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan by Carrie Vaughn
This is one of the better stories in the rump-end of the collection; Vaughn’s construction of the story has some brilliant twists in it, and a really nice building of tension with later sudden releases. Indeed, the plot does manage to combine two separate storylines really well, what with Jennifer’s search for Tricia, and her adventures with Croyd, running parallel but effectively combined; and the characters are really well-written, with Croyd playing true to type and very well written, and Jennifer a brilliant new character, her ace talent played close to the chest for a while and then revealed in the best possible way. A really great story.

Comes a Hunter by John J. Miller
Miller’s story is possibly the single best story in the collection, in part because it reminds me so much of the genre that Martin’s whole universe is playing off: superheroes. Whilst Shell Games manages to be an homage to the pulp era in general, Miller’s story is an homage to Green Arrow in particular, and a brilliant one at that; a normal man avenging his friends against aces, and leading into a fight against crime, using a bow and arrows, with a false name and mark to boot? This is genius stuff, beautiful homage to the superhero comics which pit ordinary humans against meta- or super-humans; and the way Miller plays it, there’s doubt, right until the last, over who’ll win. Amazing.

Interludes/Epilogue/Appendices by George R. R. Martin & others
These little bits and pieces to tie into the world and give a wider view than the stories can tend to be very good in a functional, and stylistically realistic, way.  The problem is that they're not in themselves interesting; as a wider view on the universe, they're great, but some of them are basically impenetrable (Interlude Four especially), others not useful or contributory (Interlude Five, the section in the Appendix entitled "The Science of the Wild Card Virus).  Worldbuilding by telling isn't terribly effective, and texts which go too far in the direction of stylistic mimicry become impenetrable, and that's a flaw in a number of these little linking sections.

Martin has put together an almost entirely excellent collection here, a brilliant homage to the superhero genre of comics that rises above it's origin by moving away from it, whilst remaining closely linked with it stylistically and ideologically.  The use of the mosaic style and the various different authors writing linked short stories is managed excellently, especially the various characters who move between different stories smoothly and simply.  The world's intriguing and the quality of the stories great, so I'll certainly be exploring this universe further!
Mann's followup to Ghosts of Manhattan is a similarly steampunk, superheroic and frothy tale; but Ghosts of War, by its nature as a sequel, by its construction, and by its characterisation, highlights some of the flaws that Ghosts of Manhattan managed to dampen down, and is brought down by them; indeed, this is a much poorer followup to a superior start.

The characterisation is where most of these problems lie.  Ghosts of Manhattan riffed on the Batman classic formula, with a few notes of difference (including the willingness of the Ghost to kill); Ghosts of War expands on this, but with a real problem - Mann is attempting to give Gabriel, the Ghost, a backstory and some angst, and yet the backstory we're given does nothing to explain the choice to disguise himself and go around the city as a vigilante, not even to the extent that Batman's origin story does.  Indeed, Gabriel Cross is a sort of broken Batman: whereas much of the interest of Batman's character is the conflict between socialite Bruce Wayne and vigilante Batman, and the angst at the heart of the character, Mann doesn't give Gabriel any real conflict between his identities, and there is no similar kind of angst or driving force.  Similarly, whilst Donovan is a stand-in for Gordon (at a Batman: Year One kind of stage) and Banks for Loeb, they don't really have the force of personality that makes comics work; the premise of Batman is ridiculous, and overblown, and Mann is trying to avoid that ridiculousness whilst having many of the ridiculous elements.

This crosses over into the plot; Ghosts of War has a plot which has the stakes raised so high, even compared to Ghosts of Manhattan, as to be meaningless, whilst also drawing on its prequel for the basic horror at the centre.  The problem here is a straightforward one; the plot is too simple and yet drawn out for far too long by idiocy and lack of communication, combined by characters not acting as they would be expected to given their character as given.  Indeed, what we really see here is a plot that is ridiculous, drawn straight from Watchmen (the comics references fly thick and fast!) combined with a Lovecraftian horror that isn't horrific, because Mann's writing strips it of any numinousness or awfulness, rendering it strangely quotidian.

Overall, then, Ghosts of War is a poor sequel to a frothy, fun novel; it tries to inject angst and meaning into a situation where those things don't work, because of the nature of Mann's writing and characterisation.  A deeply, deeply flawed and disappointing novel.
Just over a week ago, I reviewed Black and White, and said I would be seeking out the sequel; that's exactly what I then did, and yesterday, it arrived.  Today, I read Shades of Night cover to cover, and have to conclude that Kessler and Kittredge remain the authors of some of the best fiction I have read this year; an excellent sequel to an excellent novel.  Spoilers for Black and White follow!

B&W Spoilers Below )
Black and White is most definitely a superhero novel, and a good one at that; but - like the best output of Marvel and DC, among others - it isn't simplistic or, for that matter, black and white.  Indeed, Kessler and Kittredge have subverted the unthinking assumptions we have about superheroes in order to construct a story worthy of talents like Grant Morrison or Jeph Loeb.

The characterisation is one of the strongest elements of this novel, because they get into your head so much.  We have two viewpoint-characters, with chapters alternating between them (one written by Kessler and the other Kittredge? Perhaps, but given the stylistic continuity, I think not); and they're coming from very different, and yet very similar, perspectives.  Jet is a superhero working for the Corp, on the side of light and good; she's a conflicted person, with a deeply troubled past and a damaged psyche, and she's also a very repressed character.  On so many levels she feels like a corporate mouthpiece - and indeed, other characters at times describe her as such - but she's also a character we can sympathise with, especially as we learn more about her past.  The other protagonist is Iridium, a much more starkly grey character; working outside, and indeed against, the Corp, she does try her best to keep order and protect people in the area she operates in - a slum called Wreck City.  Conflicted in a different way to Jet, and with a damaged past of her own, her burning rage alienates the reader at the same time as her humanity draws one in, making one sympathise with her - a strange situation, as we sympathise with characters battling each other as the chapters shift perspective.  The background characters are also stellar; it is hard to praise portrayals of Night, Lester, Bruce, Taser et al. enough, as each is a well-drawn, individual presence in the novel, making themselves felt in the action and with very distinct styles and personalities, and again, none falling into a simple Black and White understanding of the world.

The plot is reminiscent of a number of comics - especially recent Marvel work in the Civil War/Dark Reign storylines; superheroes trying to do what is right, for a very different definition of what is right, and coming into conflict because of those differences - but neither is in the wrong.  The sections of the novel from the past lives of Jet and Iridium are brilliant, in slowly playing out their training and how they interact with the Corp; as it continues, it remains relevant to the present events, as it shows how the relationship between them deteriorated.  Indeed, the focus on the relationship between Jet and Iridium is one of the strongest elements of Kessler & Kittredge's writing; informing the plot, the characters, and the feel of the novel, it is a stunningly evocative and emotive piece of writing.  The control demonstrated as the two different plots come slowly crashing together - Jet's mission from Night, Iridium's plot inspired by her father - is also excellent, and the final twists and reveal are awfully painful to the reader, just as they are to the characters, because they are both so unexpected and so appropriate, as well as being perfectly, brilliantly done.

Black and White is not terribly groundbreaking - Marvel, in recent years, has covered much of the same ground, albeit less complexly and with less of an equivocal view - but it is excellently written and brilliantly human; Kessler and Kittredge do an excellent job of making the extrahumans sympathetic, powerful characters.  I absolutely loved this novel, and quite literally could not put it down; Black and White has, indubitably, made it into my list of the top reads of the year.


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February 2012

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