The ACES HIGH, JOKERS WILD series has a new installment, and holy crap, is it intense.
I got hooked on this series last year, a delicious blend of military sci fi and cyberpunk. These books take place in an alternate universe, post-fracture United States where huge corporations have become dictatorships in place of a central government. Freedom fighters who cling to a democratic way of life are working to bring down the system, hacking supplies, intelligence, and equipment in order to survive and stay hidden.
In the first book, The Hands We’re Given, Commander Aidan Headly reluctantly accepts his new assignment as the CO of the Wildcards, a bunch of misfits with a reputation for eating hapless officers for breakfast. The recent death of their old commander, who was able to mold this group into a cohesive unit capable of carrying out daring and productive missions, has left them sailing without a rudder. It’s up to Aidan to organize them into controlled chaos and bring them back into line. He has a personal history he’d rather keep quiet, but trust is a two way street, and if he wants his team to rely on him, he’s going to have to trust them in return…and handsome Kevin McIllian might be just a little too charming for Aidan’s own good.
Book two, Call the Bluff, has the Wildcards on top of their game again. Aidan’s team is more of a family, and they’re going to need each other to get through this mission. The horrific truth of how inhumane the Corporations are drops into the hands of Aidan’s team in video format. The Wildcards are charged with getting this information out into public view by hacking into social media and exposing the grim reality. With everything working against them, Kevin and Aidan have to recruit some unconventional help.
Book three, Raise the Stakes, has the Wildcards poised for their most dangerous mission yet. They are tapped to bring down a crucial system which keeps citizens compliant with the draconian demands of the Corporations. To get this done, they will have to risk it all, and Corporate drone strikes are coming closer and closer to their hidden base. Some of the Wildcards are going to pay the ultimate price for others’ freedom, and Aidan is going to have to reap the painful consequences of past decisions.
As you can see, it’s a freaking wild ride this far, and Aces and Eights is no exception. This book starts out with a gentle reprieve from the deadly intensity of the last mission as Aiden is finally able to complete his surgical transition. He and Kevin get to spend some much-needed time alone as he recovers before they must jump right into their next mission: an endeavor that may permanently solve the base’s food supply issues and make them less reliant on risky seizures of Corporate shipments. An ambush sends the mission spiraling out of control, and betrayal is hiding in the shadows everywhere they turn for help. When Aidan is captured by one of the Corporations and tortured to give up information about the hidden base, Kevin and the rest of the team must rescue him before it’s too late…but Aidan may wish for death instead of rescue before the Corporation is done with him.
I repeat, HO-LEE CRAP. This was probably the most incredible, brutal adventure yet and I had to stop reading to catch my breath a couple of times. I thought for a minute, aww, this is going to be a welcome character development book with a minor adventure at first, but then BANG! (cue O.E. Tearmann’s maniacal laughter: YOU ONLY THOUGHT THIS WAS GONNA BE EASY, HAMILL.)
One of the things I love the most about this series are the characters’ relationships with each other. They truly are a team, a family, and are inextricably meshed cogs in a machine that might fall apart if any one element is removed. They work so well together because they believe in each other, support each other, and rip new assholes when it’s needed.
O.E. Tearmann (actually a team of talented writers) unflinchingly faces the reality of chronic, severe depression seen through Aidan’s eyes in all these books. There’s no magic pill even in the future to make it go away despite the medical miracles Corporate technology can provide, and I think that is a huge thing to acknowledge. The understanding no one can, or should, go through it alone is important here. It takes a community to heal, whether that community be blood or found family.
The diversity of the cast is not just apparent in cultural and LGBTQIA representation, but in neurodivergent characters as well. I am so excited to see hacker Tweak settling into her new family and growing with the help of medications and counseling.
With all these subtly nuanced characters, Tearmann creates a compelling, breathlessly exciting series of books which have not yet failed to disappoint me. I especially loved the interlude in a pagan community in the mountains. If Coomb Olwen is taking applications for residency, sign me up. And OMG. The end. ALL THE FEELS. Somebody read these so we can squee together.
While this book took a bit of a different track, I personally think Tearmann is just lulling me with a false sense of security until they rip my heart out and staple it back together again. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Wildcards’ next installment.