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Still with me? Good, lets begin.
Recently I finished Low Chicago edited by George RR Martin, a fantasy author you may have heard of. This is actually book twenty-five in the Wild Cards series, which for those who don't know, is the shared superhero universe where an alien plague is unleashed over New York City in 1946. While most who contracted the diseases were killed, an unlucky few were mutated into horrible parodies of humanity called "Jokers". Even less people gained useful superpowers, becoming "Aces". The last twenty-five books flesh out how the post-WWII world handles these super-powered beings in a realistic style reminiscent of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
I received a copy of this book from Tor for the Sidewise Awards consideration, but having only read the first four books of the Wild Cards series, I didn't plan to actually read Low Chicago anytime soon because I thought I wouldn't be able to follow the plot. Thankfully, the kind folks at Aces & Jokers: A Wild Cards Podcast pointed out that the book is actually meant as a jumping on point for new readers, which was great for me because I really wanted to read this one.
You see I'm from Chicago and I always enjoy when stories are set in my hometown. I even hope someone will actually take the characters to my old neighborhood, which is a place so obscure that even third generation Chicagoans who have never left Cook County would have trouble picking it out on the map of the city. Plus since I was already a big Wild Cards fan, I went into Low Chicago with high expectations.
Like many Wild Cards books, Low Chicago is a mosaic novel, which means its one story written by several different authors, all tied together into one coherent narrative. The main character is John Nighthawk, a Chicago-based Ace who has precognition and life-draining abilities. He was born a slave and should have spent the last moments of his life in a hospital in New York City, until he was infected by the Wild Cards virus, making him practically immortal. By the present (2017), he is hired on to be a bodyguard for a player at a high stakes poker game happening at the Palmer House. When a fight breaks out another Ace that is there accidentally sends everyone back to different points in time causing reality to break down in the present.
To make matters worse, the Ace who sent everyone back in time is Croyd Crenson, a.k.a. The Sleeper. Every time he falls asleep he wakes up a new power and look. Thus John and Croyd only have a limited amount of time to travel back in time to gather up everyone who was lost before Croyd falls asleep and lose his time travelling powers. Their journey takes them to several famous events in Chicago history, like the Great Chicago Fire, the World's Fair, the opening of the Playboy Club, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and more. The book's jacket also makes a big deal about going to the 1920s (you know when Capone and other gangsters were running around) as if it will be the climax of the story, but (SPOILER ALERT) only one story takes place there and it happens midway through with little impact on the overall plot.
Since this is a time travel story, things get confusing from the start. For example, Croyd can travel with John through time, but not space. Thus when they first go back in time they find themselves back in the Palmer. Of course, this makes little sense once you think about it since the Earth is moving through space as we speak, meaning that Croyd would have to be able to travel through space in order to reach the specific point Earth is at in the ever-expanding infinite universe, but like most time travel stories, this is glossed over.
Also whether you can really change history is never quite clear throughout the story. Sometimes you can change the past in big ways, other times what you doesn't matter and some times you were always meant to go back in time and do the thing that happened. At one point near the end time is described as a river and time travelers are described as throwing pebbles into said river. They may cause ripples, but the course of the river eventually sweeps their impact away. Nice metaphor, but if time is self-correcting, then why the hell did everyone see reality start to implode shortly after the accident happened?
So yeah if you are looking for a plausible time travel story, Low Chicago is probably not for you. That said, if you want a superhero time travel story, you might want to check out Low Chicago. Since its a mosaic novel there are several different stories from several different authors (i.e. Saladin Ahmed, Paul Cornell, Marko Kloos, John Jos. Miller, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Christopher Rowe, and Melinda M. Snodgrass). To be honest not many of them stood out in any spectacular way, but all of them were enjoyable to read and generally fit together (although there was a story about a bird that went in two different directions depending which author told it).
Besides a story set in a more violent outcome to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the best story was the main narrative written by Miller which followed Nighthawk and Croyd as they traveled across time collecting all of the temporal castaways. I loved the chemistry between the increasingly reckless Croyd and the cool competency of Nighthawk. To be honest after reading Low Chicago I think I'd have to make Nighthawk my new favorite Wild Card character. I love "smart" characters. They don't need to be geniuses, but if they can overcome their troubled origins and really learn from it, then they make for a relatable and interesting character. Then go and contrast that with the drug-addled, morally gray, but still trying to be a "good" guy, Croyd and you get a great team-up.
So in the grand scheme Low Chicago is good superhero story set in a realistic(ish) universe that this Chi-town boy enjoyed. Sure the logic behind time travel could have been better fleshed out, but if you are a Wild Cards fan or want to be one, Low Chicago might be a good place to start.