In all honesty, the Wild Cards universe is not my favorite urban fantasy setting. It is a distant second to Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles, but it does have its charm. The different writers add variety, and in particular the early books displayed superb character development. I abandoned the series a long time ago, though, and only picked up this novelette due to its author. Marko Kloos writes some of my favorite contemporary military science fiction, with very relatable characters, and I was wondering how he’d do in a setting with extra-human beings.
For those unfamiliar with the Wildcard universe, it is an alternate history world, which was affected by an alien virus right after World War II. The virus killed most of its victims, but those who survived were changed. Many were grotesquely deformed, and those were named Jokers. Those who gained superpowers became Aces. Later came the freaks with powers: Joker-Aces. The origin story was very convoluted and infantile, but it gave rise to myriad stories, which usually featured one or a small group of changed people, tied in a loose story arc. The first writers had it easy: they were free to invent new characters and have them interact with each other. And their setting was the now romanticized period of governmental prosecution of minorities and “enemies of the state” in America. Modern stories have less freedom, as most of the attractive extra-human powers are already taken, and the setting tends to be the more mundane parallel-universe in the present time.
Such is the case of Khan, the protagonist of this story. It is my understanding that his character was already invented elsewhere, so Kloos did not have much freedom with his appearance and powers. Khan is a half-tiger half-man, with the dividing line going straight down his middle. He has some enhanced senses and strength on his tiger side, and he uses those to work as a bodyguard. His job in this title is to protect a young rich daughter of a wealthy lawyer to the mob, as she enjoys the nightlife in Berlin. Soon after her arrival, however, she gets kidnapped by the Georgian mob, and Khan is clobbered by another, much stronger Joker-Ace. After he recovers, he gets some minimal support from the German Wildcard security office, amounting to little more than advice and the promise to look the other way as he tries to find his client. He is able to locate her, fights his way to her and then back out, where he finally gets a little help just before the enemy Joker-Ace would smear him all over the concrete.
The thing I liked best about this story is that Khan is what would amount to the common man among his peers. His powers are simply enhancements to his human side, not something exotic, and even though he can heal fast, getting injured, especially on his human half, is more than just an inconvenience. He barely holds his own when faced with three or four normal people, and the enemy Joker-Ace is far beyond his reach. Even in the final confrontation he is vastly overshadowed by the German Ace, who defeats the enemies in a heartbeat. The Wildcard universe has many stories that feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and this fits right in.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story didn’t fare that well. There is absolutely no character development for Khan, and everyone else is just a piece of the scenery. The reader could have been distracted by the action or environmental description, but the latter is just as sparse as characterization. The action is a little better, but Kloos made the daring decision to work only with Khan’s perception and not show the bigger picture. This may make the action sequences feel a little more intimate, but the focus remains too much on Khan, who is not a really someone you could root for. As a result, I found this entry into the Wildcard universe bland and forgettable. I don’t know how this story compares to other recent Wild Cards writing, but as a standalone, compared to the classic stories or compared to other writing by Marko Kloos, Berlin Is Never Berlin falls way short of expectations.
This story is available for free at the Tor.com Web site here.