The third installment of the Wild Cards series changes the elemental structure of the books. Whereas in I and II there were individual stories about characters each written by a different writer, Jokers Wild fuses all of the characters together into a single novel.
What this means most importantly is that there’s no way to discern which part of the novel was written by which author. There’s only a Credits part where you can see which character belongs to which writer. Of course, once two or more of the characters meet, you don’t know which writer wrote that part.
Another important aspect of the novel is its time frame. The whole plot takes part in a single day. There’s a section devoted to each hour, which the reader experiences from different characters’ perspectives. It must have been incredibly hard to edit this, but GRRM pulled it off admirably.
SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read the first 2 volumes, but then, why would you be here, right?
The main plot is easy to sum up (and I won’t say more, because there’s for obvious reasons tons of subplots): It’s Wild Card Day, where New York commemorates the outbreak of the virus in 1946 and the Astronomer, the villain of the previous book, plans his revenge.
Most of the featured characters from “Wild Cards I” and “Aces High” return while some others get greater prominence and a few others take a break. Some … some also die!
The cast list includes: Fortunato (old), Tachyon (old), Roulette (new), Hiram Worchester (old, but more center stage now), Demise / James Spector (old), Jack Robicheaux (old), Bagabond (old). There are many others, but the list would be too long.
The book tries to interweave the individual plots as closely as possible, but the BIG problem is: there are some characters and arcs that are, to me, simply not very interesting and become quickly repetitive. It’s a reason it took me quite a while to finish the book, because even though most character POVs don’t last longer than a few pages before the narrative switches to the next character, sometimes you just don’t feel like reading a character and that halts the entire progression.
For example, I didn’t like Jack Robicheaux, whose main power is turning into an aligator, losing control and running around in the sewers, and Bagabond, the classic cat lady. In the first WC volume they featured only in one story that you could get over with, but as main characters in a novel they are simply too thin and uninteresting. Worse, during the entire novel we as readers don’t get to know them any better than we knew them before. We never get emotionally invested. And they don’t even play an important role in the overall plot. They sort of do their own thing. Fortunato, the semi-Japanese black pimp also always was a flat, uninteresting character for me. In this WC, he’s practically the hero. Similar problems are shared by the other arcs as well.
However, the feeling of New York, which is where the narrative is set, is very authentic.
I was very sorry to see one of my favorite characters die and some of the others taking a break or (maybe?) also dying (I’ll have to check in volume IV).
So, it seems unfortunate, but IMO this third WC book, which tries something different, also is the weakest so far. Since the next novels will apparantly stick to this collective novel structure, I’m a little worried. But it should be okay if the better charactes like Croyd or the Turtle feature again. Put the good ones center stage again and it’ll be alright.
BOTTOM LINE: While suffering from a weak main cast and a kind of exhausting structure, it’s still Wild Cards. If you’re not prepared to abandon this so far awesome series, just plow through!