Wild Cards Volume 17 - DEATH DRAWS FIVE
The seventeenth entry in the series is the first solo novel since Turn of the Cards, this time written by John J. Miller with a cover by Mike S. Miller (no relation), and is once again published by ibooks. The events take place circa 2005 over the course of a week or so and concern two religous fundamentalist groups convinced that the Last Days have arrived and that John Fortune is the key player in the coming 'apocalypse'. While ex-president, Leo Barnett's side sees him as saviour, the Vatican takes a somewhat less benevolent stance regarding the boy's true nature. Both groups seek to gain the upper hand in the coming conflict by gaining control of John.
The five main characters in this tale are:
Billy Ray, AKA Carnifex
Jerry Strauss, AKA Mr Nobody
with additional support from:
Ellen Allworth, AKA Cameo
Jerry Strauss and John Fortune kick things off by taking in a show they won't forget in a hurry; Billy Ray is ordered to prepare for the Second Coming, comes face to face with an Angel, and meets his match in Vegas. Fortunato follows the son when he decides to come home and finds his reputation isn't what it used to be; while the mysterious John Nighthawk and his team do God's work in Italy, and meet a legend in a New York hotel room.
With each party making their claim for a piece of John, Jerry decides to take him camping and finds unexpected help from an old regular; while Cameo helps Nighthawk get an answer to an important question. Billy Ray asks the gods for help, meets up with an old comrade-in-arms and finds Jesus; while Midnight Angel hears voices, talks in tongues, and goes it alone in bringing John before the Hand of God. In Jokertown, Fortunato discovers there's more to life than sex and makes a grand entrance in front of witnesses.
As Jerry, Billy Ray and company let their hair down for a last night on the town, all interested parties converge on the Peacable Kingdom for the final battle. John Fortune finally begins to feel the heat; Angel faces her own demons and finally sees the truth; Nighthawk continues to follow his own agenda; Billy lets rip and gets a few surprises in the process; while Fortunato faces the biggest challenge of his life.
Well, that's better. After the diversion of the last volume, John J. Miller takes us back to the world and continuity we've come to know and love with the first 'new' Wild Cards saga in over a decade. He also gives the loyal reader the comeback that Deuces Down should have been. And a rollicking romp it is, too. What do we call this one? Religious thriller? Apocalyptic drama? Whatever, Miller puts everything in here bar the kitchen sink, and not only revisits some old favourites, but introduces plenty of promising new ones as well. He even brings out the best in Fortunato, who returns in a fashion worthy of his standing.
And considering he created Chrysalis - one of the strongest female characters in the series - it's perhaps unsurprising that the author provides us with yet another memorable addition to the fair ranks in the form of the Midnight Angel. Finally, the Wild Cards get a worthy female representative in the ass-kicking stakes, and one who offers the perfect contrast to Billy's coarseness. Okay, she's got issues. An ultra-strict religious upbringing hasn't given her a particularly open-minded attitude towards life, but thankfully her exposure to straight-talkin' Billy ensures that it's not too long before she's brought down to earth with a thump. Her character arc is such that by the end of the tale, the reader is already anticipating her possible involvement in future storylines. And how cool is that sword of hers?
As for Billy, well it's always good to see the Wild Cards' resident badass in action one more time. And to be honest, despite boasting five central characters, the book really belongs to him and the Angel, with their witty repartee and constant sparring providing many of the story's more comic moments. With each appearance, Miller manages to add a little more depth to his personality, and here, while still retaining the untamed and uncouth elements that are an essential part of his identity, Billy seems to be a little more contemplative during the quieter moments. And a little cooler about things in general now that he's on the wrong side of forty. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unforgettable 'guys-night-out' sequence where, thanks to the presence of Mushroom Daddy and his bag of tricks, we see a side of him no-one could have expected. He even quotes Thomas Moore before a scrap. Who would have thought?
Fortunato's 'retirement' to a Zen monastery back in Aces Abroad was always a loose end begging to be tied up, and this story also manages to do that admirably. For a Wildcarder so powerful, it always seemed such a waste to make him so immature and shallow - although to be fair, a carbon-copy of Steve Ditko's wise and all-knowing Dr Strange would have been a little too easy - but his history is utilised to suggest that it was merely a part of his development in getting to this point. And so, whereas a certain webslinger - and another Lee/Ditko creation - learnt in his teens that 'with great power comes great responsibility', Fortunato has to undergo two decades of spiritual meditation before he's able to digest the same moral. He may be a slow learner, but he gets there in the end.
In addition to Midnight Angel, there's a host of intriguing new faces in Death Draws Five. We can but hope that we'll see more of the furtive John Nighthawk in future instalments as he's the sort of complex personality the series thrives on. The inscrutable yet seemingly benevolent Mushroom Daddy is also likely to return as his presence here calls out for some kind of clarification. Who knows? Maybe he's John's guardian angel. It would certainly be in keeping with the story's religious angle. As for the bad-guys, the shape-shifter Butcher Dagon stands out as one to watch - especially as he's shown to be more than a match for Billy Ray, and who else can say that? And with a plethora of old boys, and girls, showing up at various points throughout the story, the whole book has the feel of a school reunion, as we catch up with people and places we haven't seen in over ten years.
As far as the narrative itself is concerned, the whole thing is very fast-paced with the kind of multi-stranded plot that's usually reserved for the concluding 'mosaic' entry in each triad. The action, which basically starts on page five and doesn't really let up until the epilogue, switches effortlessly between the five main protagonists and the various locations in a manner we've come to expect from Wild Cards authors. Nice setting for the climax, too. It's hard to think of a place more insipid than Branson, Missouri, so it's only natural then that the 'final conflict' between good and evil would take place within its borders. A minor quibble, however, would have to be the low page count in comparison to previous volumes - when a book's this enjoyable, you want it to last a little longer.
A slightly larger quibble would have to be that, prior to filing for bankruptcy shortly after this novel's publication, it seems ibooks felt no need to employ proofreaders. There are an inordinate amount of typos contained not only within this book's pages, but Deuces Down's as well. One must hope that a new contract with a new publisher might result in a reprinting of both books minus these glaring errors.
Which only leaves one question unanswered: where's the Croyd Crenson cameo?
Billy Ray: 'What's your name, anyway?'
Angel: 'The Midnight Angel.'
Billy Ray: 'Angel. Cool. It fits you.'
Angel: 'Not 'Angel'. The Angel.'
Billy Ray: 'Whatever. I'm not going to call you 'The'.'
John Nighthawk: 'Men can fly. They can read your mind. They can turn invisible and disappear. They can do most anything except bring peace to the world.'
Angel: 'We can't let him loose. Think of the innocents!'
Billy Ray: 'In Vegas?'
Angel: 'You know what I mean.'
Fortunato: 'Tell your children, tell your family, your friends, your loved ones, and those evil ones you fear, that Fortunato is back from the dead.'