Inside Straight is the first of a trilogy of newer books set in the Wild Cards universe of superheroes. The sequel, Busted Flush, was released in December 2008 and the next book, Suicide Kings, should be released around December 2009. There are also 17 older books in the series, and most of these are written as anthologies containing contributions by several different authors. Inside Straight is also a compilation novel, a complete story with portions written by Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R. R. Martin, Ian Tregillis, and S. L. Farrell.
Wild Cards take place in our world with one big difference: shortly after World War II, an alien virus that changes human DNA swept through the world. This virus killed 90% of people affected, but 9% only became deformed (jokers) and the lucky remaining 1% developed awesome superpowers (aces). At least some of the aces gained amazing superpowers, while others (deuces) just had silly powers that did not seem particularly useful for anything.
Inside Straight demonstrates that in spite of the existence of superheroes, much of the world is still the same as ours, including the popularity of reality TV shows. Various aces audition for the opportunity to compete on the new show American Hero, which is similar to the typical reality show but with more card analogies. Once chosen, the contestants are divided into four teams: Aces, Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds. Each team must learn to work together to complete challenges, such as rescuing some stuntmen and a fake baby from a burning building. The winning team has immunity from elimination while each of the three losing teams has to select a teammate to send to the discard pile. Discarded members are no longer eligible to win but live together in a mansion and continue to provide entertaining footage for the show. Meanwhile, there is political upheaval in the Middle East but it is overshadowed by the American Hero craze that is sweeping the nation.
This is the first Wild Cards book I have read and it worked well as an introduction to the series even though there were several other books published before Inside Straight. There were some people and events referred to that I suspect were discussed in more detail in previous installments (particularly Peregrine and Fortunato’s backstories) but I never felt lost.
This novel was very easy to get into, difficult to put down, and a lot of fun to read. I did feel that the end was not as good as the earlier part of the novel. This was mainly because I really liked some of the characters introduced toward the beginning, such as Curveball and Earth Witch, and they no longer had their own sections toward the end of the book since most authors stuck to one or two characters for their section and the next one would focus on a different hero or set of heroes. The only character who had a point of view throughout the book was Jonathan Hive, who had sections in between the others and lots of blog entries (he joined the show because he was an aspiring journalist and wanted to write about it on his blog).
The other reason I did not like the end as much was because even though I hate reality TV, I was enjoying reading about it and and the various characters interacting with each other. Although I did like the fact that the heroes went from doing challenges that didn’t matter to making a difference in the real world, I also did not find it as much fun to read about. The conflict was also only introduced a little at the beginning so it was a bit disorienting to jump back to it and I had trouble keeping track of the characters who had been mentioned in that one little section when it came up again later.
With the exception of one or two characters, the powers were either too specific to be extraordinarily powerful or had a disadvantage in place to keep them from being too great. For instance, there was one character who could split into smaller copies of himself, but his intelligence was divided among all of him so the more copies he made, the stupider they were. Another contestant, Stuntman, was capable of healing from any sort of injury; however, he did not recover immediately, and the worse the injury, the longer it took him to recuperate.
Several of the characters were not at all static and my favorite to read about was Ana (Earth Witch), who really did not care about winning the title of “American Hero.” Although she could dig a hole in the ground using her mind, she thought her power very unexceptional and auditioned for the show only at the urging of her brother. She was shocked when she made the cut and later underwent a transformation of her attitude toward her powers as the challenges and some help from Curveball helped her discover her capabilities. Other favorites were Curveball (an overall nice girl who could control any object she threw), Jonathan Hive (the aspiring journalist who could transform part of or all of himself into wasps), and The Amazing Bubbles (a former modelling superstar whose power relied on being fat).
There were also plenty of amusing conversations and situations. I particularly liked the description of the first challenge for Ana’s team. Everyone on the team tried to think of a way to use their powers to rescue people from a fire and it was only after failing miserably that someone thought to try the nearby fire hose.
Inside Straight was a delightful read populated with well-written characters with some unique powers. Although I didn’t find myself as interested at the end of the novel due to the changes in character point of view, I did enjoy it and look forward to reading Busted Flush.