Having enjoyed Inside Straight a lot more than I ever envisoned, I was eager to read the sequel, Busted Flush. The first volume of this new Wild Cards trilogy was fresh, hip, complex, and entertaining, and I was hoping for more of the same with Busted Flush.
As always, George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass remain at the helm, but new contributors joined authors from Inside Straight to write this one. Returning for this second volume are Carrie Vaughn, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis, S. L. Farrell, John Jos. Miller, and Melinda Snodgrass. Replacing GRRM, Daniel Abraham, and Michael Cassut are Victor Milán, Kevin Andrew Murphy, and Walton Simons.
The various story arcs occur a few months following the events in Egypt that brought Inside Straight to a close. A new generation of aces has taken its place on the world stage, and the heroes who were victorious in Egypt have been recruited by the United Nations. Known as the Committee, like it or not they have become both pawns and players involved in international affairs. But the world is a dangerous place, and the Committee's resources are spread too thin as it is. The West is suffering from an oil crisis orchestrated by Middle Eastern countries. There are rumors of a genocidal war in the Niger Delta, a conflict that continues to escalate and which could be manipulated by Western interests. Another hurricane is approaching New Orleans, one that could devastate the city once again. John Fortune sends his young aces to these trouble spots around the globe, hoping that they will be enough to prevail. But when a nuclear explosion wipes out a small town in Texas, and when events continue to deteriorate and fall out of the aces' control, it dawns upon them that they might not be up to such daunting tasks.
The somewhat "alternate" Wild Cards universe ensures that this novel remains unlike a majority of the SFF works out there. The pace is brisk throughout the book, which means that there is not one dull moment from cover to cover. And yet, sometimes I felt that things may have been moving too fast. The beauty of Inside Straight was the relationships and interaction between the characters. And while that facet is present in Busted Flush, it is to a lesser degree. Indeed, the book focuses a bit more on events than on the characters themselves.
Having said that, the characterization nonetheless remains a fun and interesting aspect of Busted Flush, though I expected more character growth overall. Other than Drummer Boy, who started out as an ass in Inside Straight, and who in all likelihood has become the most engaging character in this second volume. I quite liked how they portrayed Niobe, the Genetrix. The special relationships between Weathers and his daughter Sprout, as well as the bond between Noel and his ailing father, were both humane and thoughtful, and at times very touching.
As I mentioned, the interaction between the characters remains a highlight in Busted Flush, even if it's not as well-done as in the first volume. Although I could have done without a few MTV-esque sex scenes that were unnecessary and felt a bit silly. Fortunately, those "lighter" episodes are balanced by quite a few poignant moments which elevate this book to another level. Kudos to Melinda Snodgrass for the entire Double Helix sequence, which is hands down the best portion of this novel. I feel that the contributors did a good job of balancing the more humorous moments with a number of more powerful and emotional scenes.
All in all, Busted Flush is another solid effort that should please long-time Wild Cards fans, as well as the newbies (like me) that jumped on board with Inside Straight. My only complaint would have to be that it feels as though they tried to do too much. With everything transpiring in the Middle East and Africa, and with Drake's storyline in the US, the entire New Orleans story arc came to feel like an interlude. Not because it's not good, mind you, but simply because the other plotlines felt more important to the overall story arc. However, a satisfying ending promises a lot come in the final volume and beyond.
I'm not convinced these new Wild Cards installments are receiving the respect they're due. But for my money, Busted Flush is as complex as it is entertaining. A very good read indeed!
The final verdict: 7.5/10