Death antes up and draws five. What do you do, hotshot? Raise? Call? …Go fish? Let’s hold ‘em or fold ‘em for Death Draws Five, by John T. Miller and edited by George R.R. Martin.
John Fortune – son of Peregrine and Fortunato, two of the most powerful and popular Aces the world has ever known – has finally turned his card. He’s an Ace! And proud of it… except that his new powers put him on a collision course with enemies he never knew he had. Is he the new messiah? Or the Anti-Christ? Or is he just a kid who’s in over his head and about to drown?
It’s really quite simple. Mr. Nobody wants to do his job. The Midnight Angel wants to serve her Lord. Billy Ray, dying from boredom, wants some action. John Nighthawk wants to uncover the awful secret behind his mysterious power. Fortunato wants to rescue his son from the clutches of a cryptic Vatican office. John Fortune just wants to catch Siegfried and Ralph’s famous Vegas review.
The problem is that all roads, whether they start in Turin, Italy, Las Vegas, Hokkaido, Japan, Jokertown, Snake Hill, the Short Cut, or Yazoo City, Mississippi, lead to Leo Barnett’s Peaceable Kingdom where the difference between the Apocalypse and Peace on Earth is as thin as a razor’s edge and where Death himself awaits the final terrible turn of the card.
You know what I hate? When a science fiction story turns out to be a religious story in disguise. I came into this book expecting it to be a Wild Cards tale, and got Black Ops: Vatican instead. Apparently, one group of religious nutjobs is convinced that John Fortune is the second coming of Christ, and some other group of religious nutjobs is convinced that John Fortune is the Anti-Christ, and I’m supposed to be entertained by a story of these lunatics slaughtering each other and any innocent bystanders who happen to get between them. Never mind that there have been previous Aces, Jokers, and Deuces with divine or satanic appearances and Christ-like abilities such as healing or turning water into wine; everyone’s convinced that this little twerp is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, and I have to spend the entire book listening to their delusional ravings about it. Oh, joy.
Now, maybe it’s not fair to John Fortune to immediately write him off as a little twerp. Really, he’s perfectly fine as a character; not overly annoying or whiny or Anakin-Skywalker-y. It’s just, when you introduce a child character by having everyone say how he’s the messiah and the chosen one and such a super special awesome child of prophecy who will save the world by bringing light to the darkness and balance to the Force – well, that’s just about the fastest way possible to make me hate him. When the book begins with everyone fawning over him and his specialness, I’m developing a mental image of him as a smug little shit, and no amount of later characterization is going to wipe away that first impression. Not that it helps matters that he spends the whole book getting kidnapped and shot at, resulting in characters I actually like such as Peregrine and Mr. Nobody reducing themselves to the role of human sandbags in order to absorb all the lead flying in his direction. Because if somebody has to die, well, I’m not going to vote for one of them. Fortunato does end up actually sacrificing his life for the git, but I don’t have as much of a problem with that since I’ve always hated Fortunato.
But let’s talk more about Peregrine getting shot full of holes while shielding John Fortune with her body, because it gave me traumatic flashbacks to Epoch: Evolution. In case you aren’t aware, because you probably aren’t, Epoch: Evolution is the low-budget made-for-TV sequel to the already B-grade sci-fi film Epoch. It was a “SyFy” channel original movie; to say it was not very good would be equivalent to saying the bottom of the ocean is slightly damp. The experience of watching it was, in fact, so traumatic as to permanently burn it into my memory. When I read the scene of Peregrine being shot, I thus immediately drew parallels with the mother character in Epoch: Evolution being killed by religious fanatics in an assassination attempt on her son. Although, in Epoch: Evolution, the attack took place off-screen – no sense shelling out the cash for the actress from the first movie to reprise her role if she’s just going to die right away, you see. Needless to say, a major character from the first film being summarily offed by religious nutjobs so the story can focus on her super-special-snowflake chosen-one child-of-prophecy was the first of many things about that film that made me want to throw up; and even though Peregrine doesn’t actually die, this story’s similarity is enough to make me want to follow suit. Get it? Follow “suit”? Because, you know, playing cards? A ha ha ha, ha ha, ha… I want to die.
Then there’s Carnifex and The Midnight Angel. I normally like Billy Ray, but having him working for Barnett does him no favors. And his storyline is far too predictable. He lost the woman he thought he might be his true love when she turned out to be an agent for the Card Sharks. He’s partnered with an extremely hot but also sexually repressed woman who views her feelings of lust as sinful. They have a meet-cute involving ice cream. You may as well just jump straight to the fucking, because blind men can see where this plotline is going. And, cherry on top, the after-sex scene where she wakes up to find the bed empty and thinks he’s abandoned her, but it turns out he just stepped out of the room to get something. Because no cliche is too hackneyed for this novel!
Now let’s talk about the return of Ti Malice… oops, too late, he’s already dead again. See, you may have thought it was an incredibly fitting and appropriate send-off when Popinjay originally defeated him; but the conclusion that his story was really begging for all along was for him to show up out of nowhere and then get killed by a single punch from Carnifex literally within one page of his reappearance. Because that’s how you handle a recurring villain. For instance, remember in The Force Awakens when Palpatine suddenly showed up, not dead after all, only to immediately get shot in the face and die? Followed by a “ba-dum-tss!” drumroll rimshot and canned studio laughter? Oh, right; that never happened, because it would have been monumentally stupid!
I have strict standards for what works I give one-star reviews to. Now matter how bad a book is, it can still scrape by with a two-star review so long as it is merely bad; to get the dreaded single star, it has to honestly offend me. I asked myself: this book is really, really bad, but is it more offensive than some of the previous Wild Cards stories I let skate by with only a finger-wagging? For instance, they had two different villains attempt to rape Sprout on two separate occasions, and I forgave them for that both times. Is this book really worse than either of those occasions? After much reflection, I have decided: yes. Those previous missteps, as individually offensive as they may have been, were just single blips in otherwise good or at least decent stories. Those individual scenes may have been so bad as to knock a full star off the final rating, but there was enough good material surrounding them to absorb the blow. In Death Draws Five, the badness is unremitting. There is no refuge to be found; each plot line is just as stupid as the others. And, though it does not indulge in the gratuitous rape attempts of the aforementioned books (though it did look for a while like it might, given the Witness’s threats towards The Midnight Angel at the end of their first confrontation), it is offensive to me in other ways. Bringing Ti Malice back from the dead just for Carnifex to re-kill him in under a page; the paint-by-numbers romance between Carnifex and The Midnight Angel; all the established characters martyring themselves in a child chosen-one plot that would make even George Lucas wince; just about any scene featuring the Hand or the Cardinal; reminding me that Fortunato exists; reminding me that Epoch: Evolution exists… No. This book is just unforgiveable.
Congratulations, Wild Cards, you’ve finally hit rock bottom. Sure, I gave out a one-star score once before, for Down and Dirty; but you only managed to make that one so bad by shoehorning gratuitous rape scenes into every single plotline. With Death Draws Five, you’ve taken off the training wheels and shown yourself capable of writing an equally terrible book without having to resort to rape at all. Well done, we’re all very impressed. Now please never write anything this bad again.
Final Rating: 1/5