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Death Draws Five
John J. Miller
iBooks, 299 pages

Death Draws Five
John J. Miller
John J. Miller has written a number of novels such as Dinosaur Samurai (1993), Dinosaur Empire (1995) and First Power Play (1990) as well as a number of short stories, including ten in the Wild Cards shared-world series.

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A review by Nathan Brazil


'"It's a low class tourist trap for fat, comic book reading Americans.

They have no clue as to the strength and tenacity of the Allumbrados!"

He turned his bleak gaze onto Nighthawk. "Blood is not far from this… this disgusting fairyland. I want you to supervise him as he brings in all the obsequentes that we have. All armed. We'll take the Devil spawn as soon as they're all in place."'

Many years before anyone had thought of the hit TV show Heroes, George R.R. Martin, along with friends and associates, conceived and wrote a long running series dealing with super-powered people in the real world.

It was a world where an alien virus had been deliberately released in Earth's atmosphere, with the intention of testing its ability to turn ordinary people into super-powered soldiers. It killed ninety percent of those it affected, usually in horrific ways. The unfortunates were said to have drawn the Black Queen. A further nine percent of victims found their bodies or minds cruelly twisted. The world called them Jokers. The remaining one percent gained special abilities, ranging as far and wide as anything ever imagineered in comic books. They were the Aces, and the chronicles of their world were mosaic novels under the banner of Wild Cards. A mosaic novel, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, is a main plot or arc in which the various chapters are written by different writers. It worked brilliantly, and produced some of the most enjoyable fiction and memorable characters that I've ever read. The series went through several publishers, encompassing a total of sixteen novels, before sliding into the twilight zone where ideas too good to die lay dormant... until their time comes around again.

Death Draws Five is a stand-alone work in a new Wild Cards sequence, and is unusual in being entirely the work of one writer. John J. Miller, a member of the original group of authors, also created some of their shared world's most popular characters. These include a former pimp called Fortunato, who for the past sixteen years -- in real time -- has been self exiled in a Japanese monastery, eschewing his Ace powers in favour of quiet contemplation. The reasons for this can be found in the earlier Wild Cards books. In the present, John Fortune, the son Fortunato conceived with the beautiful winged Ace Peregrine, has come of age, and in the vernacular of the books, his card has turned. Luckily, the boy lives through this often fatal ordeal, and appears to have Ace powers. But all may not be as it seems. Others have been keeping tabs on what is the only child ever born to two Aces. The watchers, both fanatical religious groups, are divided into opposing forces. One, headed by ex-President Leo Barnett, who styles himself as the Right Hand of God, apparently believes John Fortune to be the literal Second Coming of Christ. The other faction, Allumbrados under the control of Cardinal Romulus Contarini, believe just the opposite. To them, young John Fortune is the Anti-Christ, who must be captured and destroyed at all costs, before he brings about the apocalypse.

Is the magic still there? Yes, but with a qualification or two.

Inventive as John J. Miller is, this world works a lot better when written mosaic style. Six or seven heads are better than one, unless you're a Joker. Old favourites Fortunato, Poppinjay, Father Squid, Yeoman, Mr Nobody and especially FBI agent Billy Ray, (formerly Carnifex, a character like Wolverine without claws), are highly enjoyable. The newcomers are not all so well drawn. Aces John Nighthawk, the Midnight Angel, and a joker-ace called Blood are up to the expected high standard, instantly finding their place in the Wild Cards jigsaw. Others, fall a little short of the mark. British criminal Ace Butcher Dagon is simply dull, Mushroom Daddy comes across as a pale shadow of Captain Trips, another hippie character, beloved of Wild Cards fans, and 'nat' villain Cardinal Contarini always seems hopelessly out of his depth. Despite these negatives and a couple of pretzel logic plot twists, there is much to recommend. Intriguing development of established and new characters, delightful nods to the past and enticing peeks into the possible future of the franchise, result in a novel that if not Wild Cards at its very best, does not fall too far short. The next book, to be published some time in 2008 by Tor Books, will be titled Wild Cards XVIII: Inside Straight.

Copyright © 2007 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at

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