If zombies became all the rage in the movies earlier in this decade, then the craze has now officially been passed on to the literary world. Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, World War Z, the list goes on and on. And now I've had the pleasure of tearing through the latest and greatest from horror scribe extraordinaire Jonathan Maberry. Patient Zero is a unique and thrilling yarn, chock full of action and vivid with brutal horror imagery.
Brilliantly, Maberry has meshed two tried and true subgenres. Granted, there's the zombie mayhem--but by grafting it to the hard-boiled conceits of espionage/crime fiction in the vein of Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown, Maberry has created something genuinely new, and un-put-down-able.
Patient Zero is built around a notion so simple, it almost seems like it's been done before. Yet it works so well. A fanatical terrorist Al Qaeda-like faction, joining forces with a shady pharmaceutical corporation, develops a virus that can transform people into the living dead. And naturally, they plan to use it as a weapon of mass destruction. Only one small, ultra-covert government agency stands in their way, and they've just recruited our main character, tough-as-nails cop Joe Ledger.
A highly charismatic figure, Joe Ledger is the hinge on which the novel turns, and his first-person passages are among the highlights of the book. And although it spoils things a bit when you first pick up the novel, seeing that it's subtitled "A Joe Ledger Novel" is also very cool, since it indicates we haven't seen the last of this guy.
That said, approach Patient Zero with a fun sense of adventure. Despite the gloom-and-doom of the subject matter, this is fiction that is basically the direct descendant of the lurid pulp novels of the mid 20th century. Don't expect too much depth from Ledger and the other major characters of the novel--no more than you would from the likes of James Bond, Doc Savage or Alan Quartermain.
Patient Zero is all about action, and for the most part, Maberry is at his best when he's describing it. His prose fairly crackles with kinetic energy during the novel's combat scenes. In fact, his style is so engaging during these parts that by comparison, some of the quieter moments of the novel come off slightly clumsier. And several of the supporting characters, including the members of Ledger's covert ops team, tend to often blur together.
This is a novel that's dripping with testosterone, the kind of book where male characters are constantly glaring at each other and clenching their jaws. But it works perfectly, unlike for example, a recent military SF novel I read called Hell's Gate by David Weber & Linda Evans, a book so filled with jaw-clenching I suspected it might be sponsored by a tetnis vaccine. In contrast, this is a rough-and-ready tale of layered intrigue and bone-crunching aggression, and I enjoyed it from cover to cover.
I'm usually a pretty slow reader, but this one really had me going. Fifty to seventy pages in a single sitting is pretty unheard of for me, but not this time (as I previously declared in Day of the Woman's recent summer reading post). I thoroughly appreciated Maberry's take on the well-trod zombie formula--he's even got a nerdy forensics guy in the book who's basically geeking out over the whole situation in typical fanboy fashion. The author does a fine job of detailing the reactions of these characters in the face of a "real-life" situation that they've previously only seen in the movies.
Yes, Patient Zero is an action/adventure story. But make no mistake, it's also scary as hell. In particular, there's an interesting twist late in the novel in which the terrorists develop a strain of the virus that allows the zombie victims to retain higher brain functions, which results in some damn frightening moments. I never imagined that the concept of sentient zombies could work this well.
As the novel slammed toward a conclusion, I had trouble understanding how Maberry was going to tie it all up--it felt like it had to be part one of a trilogy, or something. And yet, he does manage to wrap things up very satisfactorally. I will say that things felt a bit rushed toward the end, as if so much time and effort had been spent on the build-up and not enough on the payoff. However, the climactic passages that Maberry does provide us with are absolutely enthralling, and downright cinematic.
If you're looking for a light but exciting read, and if you think that you've seen it all when it comes to zombie fiction, then I encourage you to pick up Patient Zero.
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