Created during the shared-world anthology craze of the 1980s and revitalized after editor George R. R. Martin's rise to national prominence as the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Wild Cards series now runs to twenty-one volumes, with more on the way. Its fictional history spans more than sixty years, from the day in 1946 when an alien virus was released over New York, bringing death, disfigurement, and superpowers in its wake, to the present, a time when super-powered aces and horribly mutated jokers are as integrated into society as any other minority. Which is to say, not always harmoniously.
It might seem that a series with such a history would be inaccessible to new readers, but this volume, like the initial "relaunch" trilogy from Tor Books, is self-contained and self-explanatory, though long-time fans will know some of the protagonists and recognize small references to characters and events from the series' past. For new readers, these elements simply serve to emphasize the depth of the milieu, which is now so long-standing that characters who were young when the series began are growing older, developing the melancholy of age.
This volume is set entirely in New York City, and focuses on the officers of the 5th Precinct, who may have horns, dragon heads, or other unusual accoutrements, but are still cops through and through. Which makes for a small problem. Despite its genre elements, Fort Freak is pretty heavy on the cop story cliches. The opening story, Melinda Snodgrass' "The Rook," is standard rookie cop fare: he has a family reputation to live up to, makes some embarrassing mistakes, strikes out with a pretty girl, and is eventually recognized as one of the gang. The jokers and aces involved prevent it from being entirely dull, but the story spends too much time in familiar territory to be compelling. The book's interstitial narrative, Cherie Priest's "The Rat Race," shows us what comes at the other end of police tropes: the lonely detective on the verge of retirement, unsure what his place in the world will be, desperate to solve that one last case.
Said case, a shootout at a grimy diner, is one of several recurring elements in Fort Freak. Others include a rash of mysterious, borderline impossible burglaries and the effort to bring down two dirty cops. The intermingling of stories by several authors, and the diligent work of Martin and assistant editor Snodgrass, balances these plotlines fairly well after a slow start. The prose styles of most of the writers are solid but occasionally awkward, and generally don't offer much in the way of individual voice. The exception is Paul Cornell's "More!", a hilarious farce in which the narrator, a British actress with a highly inconvenient ace power, tries to seize her big chance but becomes caught up in the troubles of a very well-established Wild Cards character. Other standout contributions are Stephen Leigh's "Hope We Die Before We Get Old," which uses the wild card to make a tragic real-world ailment even more difficult to bear, and Kevin Andrew Murphy's "The Straight Man," a look at the chaos that Halloween in Jokertown can bring.
As with the earlier Tor releases, many characters have romantic or sexual storylines to play out, which is natural enough, but they're all so shallowly written that it feels like the same thing several times over: the first flush of attraction, some unlikely banter, sex, and then there's a stable couple. The writers don't-- perhaps, given the space available, can't-- do enough to make these relationships credible, and they end up having the depth of a wish-fulfilling romance novel.
When the Wild Cards series began, adult approaches to superhero storytelling were novel. Nearly a quarter-century later, the concept isn't as unusual as it once was, may have lost some of its edge. But there's still nothing quite like it in prose fiction, and the authors involved are still doing a fine job of giving real world people, places, and things a superhero spin. Fort Freak isn't the most exciting installment in the Wild Cards series, but it's a fun read all the same.