Wild Cards: Death Draws Five
by John J. Miller
Review by Drew Bittner
IBooks Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1596872977
Date: January, 2006 List Price $22.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
On September 15, 1946, an alien bioweapon--a virus--was released over New York City. It was Wild Card Day, and the world would never be the same.
Ninety percent of those exposed died, immediately and horribly. Nine out of ten survivors were twisted, made visibly inhuman, some of them beautiful but many grotesque; they would be called "jokers". And one in a hundred were aces, visibly unchanged but endowed with superhuman powers, ranging from the trivial to the miraculous.
The history of these superhumans was explored in the Wild Cards mosaic novel/anthologies, edited by George R.R. Martin and written by a host of scifi luminaries. After ten years, fifteen books and two publishers, the series quietly disappeared from the scene in 1995, only to resurface in 2004 with the publication of Deuces Down. Now, John J. Miller, one of the original writers, is back with a brand-new novel in the Wild Cards universe.
In Death Draws Five, it's 2003 and the world has moved on. Accompanied by his bodyguard, the facechanging ace Mr. Nobody, John Fortune (son of angel-winged Peregrine and sex-powered wizard Fortunato) visits a big cat extravaganza in Las Vegas, where things go horribly wrong. An entertainer is attacked by a tiger and mauled. In the ensuing chaos, John "turns his ace" and manifests miraculous healing powers.
Once that happens, two religious factions move to secure John---one believing he is Christ returned, the other convinced that he is the anti-Christ. On one side is Reverend (and former two-term President) Leo Barnett. He drafts Billy Ray (aka Carnifex) and a rookie ace called the Midnight Angel. They're just in time to watch as the other side, sponsored by a renegade Cardinal and fielding new aces named Butcher Dagon, the Witnesses, and Blood -- along with a troop of gunmen -- invade a press conference, attack (and nearly kill) Peregrine, and make off with John Fortune. Butcher Dagon and Billy Ray fight savagely and Mr. Nobody takes advantage of the confusion to join the kidnappers, disguised as one of them.
News of the kidnapping reaches Fortunato, who's been in seclusion in Japan for over fifteen years. He returns to the United States to help search for his son. Jokertown thinks him dead and his reputation is not enough to save him from the ghetto's mundane perils.
Meanwhile, Butcher Dagon has escaped police custody and Billy Ray is forced to pursue him, while the Angel heads to New York in search of John. Working with a 150-year old life-draining ace named John Nighthawk and the medium Cameo, Mr. Nobody manages to free John and get him out of the city. The good guys' paths lead them to a camp for joker kids in upstate New York, where the Allumbrados (or Enlightened Ones) try to reacquire John. Unfortunately for them, an infamous bowman and a wild card-powered gardener named Mushroom Daddy are ready for trouble.
John and the Angel escape a second battle at the camp and head for Branson, Missouri, and the haven offered by Barnett. They're followed by Mr. Nobody and Billy Ray, but will they be in time to help, as dangers lurk in the middle of this holy Disneyland? There are cards yet to be played in this high-stakes game and it's definitely winner take all-- especially when it seems John's powers aren't what anyone expected them to be.
John J. Miller has a knack for fast-paced writing, skipping from place to place and viewpoint to viewpoint with the dexterity that was always a hallmark of the series. It's clear that his affection for the characters (many of whom he and his wife Gail created) hasn't diminished with time. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the setting, as he wrote GURPS WILD CARDS as a supplement for the roleplaying game. He gets to put that knowledge to work, as this story covers a lot of ground.
The cast of characters is well-chosen, with Fortunato being perhaps the most tragic figure. He realizes that a life with Peregrine and their son might have been a better path, rather than hiding from himself in Japan, and that time has robbed him not only of that life but also of many friends and allies; Chrysalis and Hiram Worcester and his geishas are all gone, dead or scattered, and in their place are juvenile delinquents like the Jokka Bruddas, seeking to make a name by beating him down.
Billy Ray also suffers the passage of time, as his nearly-instant regenerative powers now take longer and remove less of the pain. Although he still craves action, he's beginning to slow down and question himself... and how long can a combat machine survive that?
Newcomer Midnight Angel is a study in contrasts, a zealot who suffers from improper desires, whose flaming sword and inhuman strength may not be enough to overcome her wayward heart. And Mr. Nobody, who has had nearly as many identities as he has faces, starts to wonder exactly who he is, when he can look like anyone at all.
In the middle of all this is John Fortune, whose true significance is yet to be discovered. It may be that he's the most powerful ace who's ever lived--and he may need all that power just to survive this holy war.
The appearance of Yeoman, Wraith, Sascha (once Chrysalis's bartender) and others is like seeing old friends all over again, which is half the pleasure of picking up a series after so long away. Many of the major series characters are not seen in this book, though some are mentioned; then again, this isn't their story. Maybe characters like The Great and Powerful Turtle, the Sleeper, Radical and more will return one day.
Some of the content may feel uncommonly topical, but the series has never shied from portraying the follies and foibles of the world. In this case, the struggle between millennial cults suggests modern conflicts and the power of faith to both save and destroy.
With Miller's considerable talent fully employed, it's like the Wild Cards never left...and readers can hope they won't be gone so long ever again.