Dead Man’s Hand: Companion to Ace in the Hole

Dead Man’s Hand edited by George R.R. MartinDead Man’s Hand edited by George R.R. Martin fantasy book reviewsDead Man’s Hand edited by George R.R. Martin

This review will contain mild spoilers for the previous WILD CARDS novels.

Dead Man’s Hand (July 1990), the seventh WILD CARDS novel, was published merely six months after the previous novel, Ace in the Hole (January 1990). Supposedly, Martin had planned for the stories in each to be combined into only one novel but his publisher (Bantam Books) said it would be too long, so it was divided into two books. Only two writers, John Jos. Miller (who created Chrysalis) and George R.R. Martin, contributed to Dead Man’s Hand, in contrast to the five authors involved with Ace in the Hole. The result is a tightly focused story that’s not as interesting as the previous one.

The events of both Ace in the Hole and Dead Man’s Hand occur simultaneously, during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. While Ace in the Hole, which I called “a vast improvement over the last two novels (Aces Abroad and Down and Dirty)” details the world-shattering events occurring in Atlanta at the convention, Dead Man’s Hand follows a few characters who are investigating the death of Chrysalis, the underground information queen of Jokertown. Chrysalis’ glass body had been shattered and an Ace of Spades playing card had been left atop it, suggesting the murder had been done by Yeoman, her former lover.

To clear his name, Yeoman, now with Jennifer The Wraith, decides to hunt down Chrysalis’ killer. So does Jay “Popinjay” Ackroyd — the guy who can point his finger like a gun, pull the “trigger” and transport someone to anywhere he visualizes (one of my favorite WILD CARD powers). Both Yeoman and Popinjay encounter all sorts of difficulties as they separately close in on the killer.

George R.R. Martin WILD CARDSDMost of the story focuses on the murder investigation, but we also see some of the Atlanta events from Ace in the Hole from these characters’ perspectives, including the drama with Senator Hartman’s jacket and some of the scary scenes involving Mackie “Mack the Knife” Messer (the most frightening WILD CARDS character, in my opinion) and Ti Malice (second only to Mackie). There are several horrible and/or gruesome scenes, some which disturbingly involve Dr. Tachyon’s young grandson, Blaise.

Other characters who show up in Dead Man’s Hand are Father Squid (I love him), Hiram Worchester, Lazy Dragon, Quasiman, Fadeout, The Oddity, Stigmata, and Troll. One subplot involving Digger Downs is hilarious. Also fun is a new character, Quinn the Eskimo, a former scientist whose blood contains hallucinogenic drugs that he can inject into others with his needle-like fingertips. (“You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn!”) Fans of Chrysalis will be pleased to learn all about her surprising background and to meet one of her parents. (Hint: We’ve always suspected that her British accent was fake.)

As I was reading Dead Man’s Hand and being reminded of the events concurrently happening in Atlanta, I longed to be back at the convention. That story, which we read about in Ace in the Hole, was much more exciting and important for the overall trajectory of the series. In fact, readers could easily get away with skipping Dead Man’s Hand. As far as I can tell, nothing really crucial to the overarching plot happens here, or at least nothing that couldn’t be quickly relayed in a few sentences, though it was nice to spend time with some of these characters.

Disappointingly, two new narrators read Random House Audio’s version of Dead Man’s Hand. I will repeat what I said in my review of the previous audiobook: “As I’ve mentioned before with the previous volumes, I am not crazy about multiple narrators for a novel because each character has a different voice when they speak during another character’s perspective. I find that a little annoying and sometimes even confusing. In my opinion, multiple narrators only works for anthologies.” So, not only do we have multiple narrators again here, but they are different than the ones we’ve heard before. They both do a good job, but their voices are, obviously, different. I especially didn’t like how one of them interpreted Dr. Tachyon. Oh well. It wasn’t a deal-breaker. Just annoying.

The next WILD CARDS book, One-Eyed Jacks, begins a new story arc. I am not sure if or when it will be released in audio format. If it is, I’ll be sure to review it.

Originally published in 1990. Reissued in 2017. Wild Cards now in development for TV! Dead Man’s Hand combines the writing talents of George R. R. Martin & John Jos. Miller. Chrysalis, the glass-skinned queen of the Joker underworld, has been found brutally murdered in her popular restaurant, the Crystal Palace. New two men are out to find her killer: Jay Ackroyd, the Ace private investigator who discovered her ruined body, and the vigilante archer known as the Yeoman, who has been framed for the crime. Their quest leads them on a nightmare odyssey of madness, violence, passion, and political intrigue that will forever alter the fates of Aces and Jokers everywhere. Experience this gripping tale of mystery and suspense, brought to you from the incredible imaginations of George R. R. Martin and John Jos. Miller in their first collaborative novel.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. Chris /

    I read this a long time ago and agree that it’s not one of the best.

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