August 1, 2010

Patient Zero (Review)

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Patient Zero (2009)
Jonathan Maberry

St. Martin's Griffin: / 2009


4.5 / 5 zedheads

Patient Zero is a rare treat in zombie literature. It's an action novel that strikes a blow to your nerves and rattles your bones, yet it also balances its breakneck action and violence with a rare and genuine emotional honesty.

Patient Zero is about Joe Ledger, a Baltimore detective with a warrior's heart. Ledger is secretly recruited by the DMS (Department of Military Sciences), a highly autonomous and covert security and anti-terrorism organization. He's brought in to combat a terrorist conspiracy threatening to unleash a hellish bio-weapon that will turn innocent people into zombies. The DMS has virtually unlimited resources and high-tech equipment just this side of science fiction, but the mission's real success depends on Ledger's ability to trust his own instincts and build a bond with his team. If they fail to discover the secret mastermind of the zombie plot and root out the spy within the DMS ranks, a zombie plague will consume the world in an apocalypse of blood and feasting.

When I began reading Patient Zero, I thought, "Oh, here we go again. Another action-thriller featuring an improbably bad-ass Super Cop kicking ass and taking names. Haven't we had enough of these ultra-macho government agents and their patriotism-thumping and jingoistic narratives?"

I was ready to write off Patient Zero. In the opening pages, Joe Ledger does come across as a cocky, no-nonsense, sarcastic Super Cop killing machine. I was worried he'd develop into that shallow stereotype of male wish fulfillment and unthinking patriotism. If author Jonathan Maberry has proved anything, however, it's that he's a better storyteller than that. Mercifully, Maberry has his finger on the pulse of what really motivates heroes as complex human beings. Patient Zero turned my genre expectations around.

After Ledger's first violent showdown with the terrorists and the undead, we get to see the sincere man behind the hard exterior. Ledger is a man who knows how to get the job done but is not immune to the violence he must inflict on others. His best friend, Rudy, is also his therapist, and we come to see Ledger struggles to reconcile his own inner monster with sense of duty. Can Ledger's inner warrior ever be sated?

When Ledger is brought into the DMS, the balance between action and emotional sincerity is maintained and explored on a broader scale . Patient Zero is not a gleeful, shoot-em-all story. People do and see terrible things that mark them and change them forever. At the same time, dedicated fans of espionage and action stories will enjoy Patient Zero's detailed fight scenes and authentically tense encounters written from a voice knowledgeable in military operations. If the novel is flawed at all, it may be too long and too technical for some readers; Maberry has a tendency to immerse the reader in all the minor details of espionage and forensic science. Yes, the book slows down the pace often to explore the characters, develop a very detailed explanation of the zombie plague, and show that most counter-terrorism takes place in meetings instead of the shooting gallery. Yet the novel also feels very cinematic and fully engaging.

If I have written little about the zombies it's because they are not the sole focus of the novel. They are a terrifying and gruesome threat, and Maberry can write zombies as well as anyone, but the real heart of the novel is in its espionage and military-thriller framework. Also, to discuss the zombies in detail risks dulling their emotional impact. They aren't a constant threat, but when they appear the zombie scenes are truly traumatic.

Patient Zero is all the better parts of Tom Clancy stories, James Bond novels, George Romero movies, and 28 Days Later-inspired infection narratives blended together. Ledger is also a far more complex action hero than I anticipated. It's this complexity and honesty that earns Patient Zero a permanent spot in my zombie novel collection.

To get a taste of Patient Zero, you can download a free prequel chapter from Jonathan Maberry called "COUNTDOWN”.

And Ledger isn't out of the world of the strange yet. In March, Maberry released THE DRAGON FACTORY, a new Joe Ledger story dealing with modern Nazis and their attempts to perfect the master race. Mabery promises to follow with a third Ledger novel in 2011: THE KING OF PLAGUES.

Stay up to date on all Maberry's work by visiting Jonathan Maberry's Big, Scary Blog