Wild Cards: Shell Games (1987) by George R. R. Martin

Ah, “Wild Cards”. A labyrinthine shared universe of anthologies, novels, mosaic novels, and comics, all set in alternate history United States of America with a complicated superhero mythology. It’s a passion project for Martin, the culmination of his childhood (and adulthood really) love of comics.

For most of the history of “Wild Cards” Martin has acted as editor, overseeing and editing the stories various other authors write, but in earlier anthologies, he’d also contribute stories. This is the first full short story story he would contribute, “Shell Games”.

The main character, Tom, is likable, and his story is enjoyable. The side POV characters feature a lot more repetitive scenes, and are much more heavily connected to the vast backstory and lore of the series, so I found them harder to connect with. The pulpy vibe of the story really comes out in Tom’s sections, but the other characters feel a lot more glum and dull, and they dragged down the story for me.

shellgames

There’s some fun imaginative imagery at play here, and Martin clearly has enormous intimacy with, and love for, the genre, but it definitely feels more like a story written out of fulfilling childhood obsessions rather than a fantastic work in its own right, the way some of Martin’s short stories such as “A Song for Lya”, “Sandkings” are, or even another short story set in a series with a complicated history, “The Hedge Knight”.

It’s not a short story compelling enough to make me want to read more in this vast series, but it’s not an entirely unenjoyable experience either. I give it two aces, and a joker.

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