The second volume of the Wild Cards series is a little shorter than the first one, but every bit as terrific and exciting.

I can now see the structure of the whole enterprise. Most of the characters present in the first volume reappear in this second and it now becomes clear that their respective stories were just the beginnings of narrative arcs elegantly crossing and intertwining, forming a whole that is a textbook example of ideal narrating.

While Wild Cards I mostly dealt with the immediate aftermath of the wild card virus and its victims slowly coming to terms with their changed fate (or not), Aces High (love the title! apparently all WC volumes have card-related titles – fittingly!) moves ahead in time and shows us a world changed and gradually adapting to the new reality. We are now in the mid 1980s and the wild card has become part of popular culture. Aces are being revered as superstars: they’re on magazine covers, have their own TV shows and dine in the very exclusive restaurant Aces High on top of the Empire State Building. Jokers on the other hand, while not as feared anymore, are still the laughing stock in the world. Places like Jokertown in NYC remain their refuge.

While the meta story in WC1 involved mostly US domestic politics and the Cold War context, Aces High daringly sets out in outer space. It also introduces exciting new aces, such as the girl on the cover (her name is Water Lily, you can guess why). This volume is also very Lovecrafty in that it deals with a threat from the depths of space and a mysterious cult trying to lure it to Earth …

But let’s take a closer look at the stories now.

Pennies From Hell by Lewis Shiner 6/10

This story continues the Fortunato arc. After learning about the word TIAMAT and a kind of evil magic surrounding it at the end of his first story, we re-encounter Fortunato amidst research on the group of people behind TIAMAT.

I don’t much like the Fortunato character; he doesn’t connect well with me. Nevertheless, he is right at the heart of the Aces High meta story by being the first of the main cast to pursue the tracks of the mysterious cult that will throughout the book become an incredibly dangerous foe.

Ashes To Ashes by Roger Zelazny 10/10

Croyd is by far my favorite ace/joker so far. Everything about this character is tragic. The way he got his wild card power, his wild card power itself and the consequences of his power. Yet, he doesn’t let it pull him down and makes his way nethertheless. This story additionally introduces another character I have high hopes for. Devil John Darlingfoot is his name and I won’t say more than he seems to keep the promise of his name. Elements of this story: a dinosaur kid, a chase for body parts, a lady overpowering two guys with the power of her pheromones.

Unto The Sixth Generation by Walter Jon Williams 10/10

The core story of the volume is seperated into a prologue, a two-parted main story and an epilogue. It tells the story of the first attack wave of swarmlings sent to Earth by the Swarm Mother, a huge, semi-sentient being known among extraterrestrial species as the Devourer of Worlds. This beautifully executed, highly dramatic proto-sci fi story by Walter Jon Williams tells the story of the android Modular Man, who is created by a frustrated mad-genius scientist shortly before the attack on Earth. The reader experiences the resulting action through the eyes of the machine. Besides the delicious action scenes involving aces battling tons of aliens, another nice feature of this story is the experience of the inside of a machine that thinks it’s alive. Or is it more than thinking? The story also introduces into the greater scheme a very important alien transportation device.

If Looks Could Kill by Walton Simons  5/10

Introduces the menacing figure of Demise. Does not have many other qualities. Feels more like a filler piece. Still enjoyed it, as it furthered the overall arc. Didn’t quite understand the power, though.

Winter’s Chill by George R.R. Martin 9/10

We meet Tom Tudburry aka The Great and Powerful Turtle again. Now, decades after having first donned the mantle – sorry, the shell of the Turtle, Tom is in a melancholic mood, regretting a love that was blighted by his wild card. It’s generally a melancholic piece where nothing much happens, but it’s a GRRM piece and Tom Tudburry is a close second favorite of mine.

Relative Difficulties by Melinda M. Snodgrass 9/10

Another tentpole story. It reminds me of the Superman stories where other survivors from Crypton come to Earth and do all sorts of shenanigans that poor Clark Kent has to deal with. In this case it’s Dr. Tachyon’s Takisian relatives that show up and still have a quarrel with him. Much of this actually takes place in space and involves the Turtle and two other aces as well as of course Tachyon, whose character arc reaches an important change here.

WIth A Little Help From His Friends by Victor Milán (the guy who’ll publish DInosaur Lords)

A sort of detective story that gets its’ tension from the fact that the Swarm has started adopting to human civilization and manipulating it. When I read about this coming development in a previous text, I’d sort of assumed that this would be a more longterm problem for the characters, but most of it is shown and resolved in this story as the Swarm arc ends in the last story of the collection. Basically, Swarmlings have started to change into humans in order to manipulate their military. The end of this a little too short to really whip up tension detective story culminates in an epic space battle, though. Things are set up for the final story.

By Lost Ways by Pat Cadigan 10/10

This is the climax of the battle against the cult. Interestingly, much of it is told from their perspective and its members are revealed to be cynical and broken beings. In the end of this story, we get something we don’t get very often in the Wild Cards series: a big battle involving tons of aces and their huge variety of powers. Yummy. Unfortunately, they don’t catch or kill every one of their foes…

Half Past Dead by John J. Miller 6/10

As I’ve said before, I’m not completely happy with the quick resolution of the Swarm arc. Without giving anything away, I think they kind of take the easy way out. All the potential plot surrounding this danger could easily have carried two to three books. Captain Brennan, the man on his vendetta, reappears in this story, but he’s completely hijacked by lame Fortunato and doesn’t really materialize much other than in cool action scenes where he shoots aliens with his bow.

All in all, an exciting continuation of the series, although I would have liked it to be less conclusive. On the other hand, that makes me curious what they’ve planned for the next installment, Jokers Wild.