Zombie stories are a dime a dozen, they come in all shapes and sizes and are very much a pop-culture phenomenon that have transcended the horror genre. Military Science Fiction is one of the most popular of subgenres of speculative fiction. Take those two great tastes, mash them up and add a wonderful amount of wit and you’ve got Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels, which begin with Patient Zero. This was his fourth novel, after his Pine Deep Trilogy, the first of which received the Bram Stoker Award for Best first novel from the Horror Writers Association.
Joe Ledger is a Baltimore policeman, ex-military with a great deal of anger and baggage. After an operation that ends in more violence than usual, he is contacted by an ominous individual about a potential new government job. As it turns out, Javad, one of the men that Joe thought he killed was only “mostly dead,” and Joe had to kill this zombie a second time. The ominous government man, Mr. Church, tells Joe he shouldn’t think about the job, but warns him against digging too deeply into this organization – the Department of Military Sciences. Unfortunately, Joe is an inquisitive guy and along with snooping around, he talks to his friend and police psychiatrist Rudy Sanchez about his situation…the whole zombie thing.
Church goes to great lengths to “punish” Joe and ensure Joe joins the DMS since Church is trying to assemble an elite force to combat what is not only a pending terrorist attack, but a terrorist attack utilizing zombies. The Zombies easily spread their undead prion disease to new hosts and the pathogen that creates the zombies isn’t easy to cure; it is very much a manufactured bio-weapon of the highest order.
Maberry masterfully crafted the character of Joe Ledger, a tough-as nails, smart character who epitomizes what it means to be an ultimate “warrior.” While he is a rugged wise-ass, he doesn’t come across as a macho asshole, either. That trap is one many a writer/storyteller has fallen into, but Maberry assimilates many archetypical elements of the hero in his construction of Ledger. Joe is a guy you immediately want to have a beer with, want in your foxhole, and don’t want to piss off. His comradery with Rudy comes across as a friendship that has seen a great deal; his interaction with Church is entertaining for Joe’s wise-ass snark against Church’s dry humor; and his introduction / assumption of Echo Team leader is pure gold.
Surrounding Ledger is a fantastic supporting cast, the aforementioned Rudy Sanchez, Joe’s best friend and police psychiatrist; Mr. Church (no other names for the archetypical Man in a Black Suit from the government); as well as Echo Team with the requisite military nicknames Top, Bunny, Scarface, Joker (because there’s always a ‘Joker’ in these stories), and Skip; and Major Grace Courtland, a British special services officer working with the DMS.
What is a hero without a nemesis/villain? Well, Maberry gives us a three-headed antagonist for Ledger and Echo Team to deal with in Patient Zero. First of those heads is Sebastian Gault, a pharmaceuticals billionaire. In other words, he’s a lot like Lex Luthor, except he doesn’t have a super-powered alien as an excuse to be a human monster, he’s just a greedy piece of human garbage. Gault is working with Middle-Eastern terrorists to develop the virus which is responsible for the zombies. Though Gault is a fairly typical villain, Maberry follows Gault’s narrative in such a way that Gault is almost a protagonist of his story-thread.
The terrorist group is led by a man named El-Mujahid, whom the narrative also refers to as The Fighter. The third head is El-Mujahid’s wife Amirah, a brilliant scientist. Gault wishes to force the governments of the world to shifting their funds from war efforts to vaccination efforts so his companies can make even more money, which would in turn make Sebastian the richest man in the world. El-Mujahid and Amirah seek a furthering of their religious goals.
Despite how fictional zombies may seem, Maberry put a lot of effort into making this nightmare creature as scientifically conceivable as possible. There is a rigorous amount of plausibility to the entirety of the novel, from the governmental intricacies to the fighting details, Maberry did a great job of revealing just the right amount of details on every level of the story without weighing down the very powerful narrative pull.
One of the strongest elements, and this is because of Ledger’s first person narrative, is the weight of Ledger’s past and being in such life-threatening and life taking combat. His emotions are powerful, plausible, and all too real. Maberry does switch to an omniscient narrative when Joe isn’t immediately in the story, passages where Gault and his associate Toyz are conversing or when El-Mujahid is on his own journey, for example.
But for me, the standout is Joe himself and Maberry’s dialogue. I’d been interested in reading Maberry’s fiction for a few years now, as a couple of my twitter friends and genre reviewing colleagues (Hi Kristin and Bob!) have been extolling the entertaining virtues of these books. Since getting an audible subscription, I decided to use one of my monthly credits and I can’t imagine consuming my future “readings” of Joe Ledger’s exploits any other way. Narrator Ray Porter is phenomenal; he brings emotion, pathos, and incredible pacing to the narrative. His slight inflections and use of accents for each character greatly differentiates one character from another (except maybe Church and Joe – there’s a bit of a similarity in tone between the two characters which may not be coincidental).
Patient Zero has all the elements of a SF-thriller hybrid, with some truly horrific elements, and a really smart set of sensibilities. Readers who enjoy Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International novels or Myke Cole’s Shadow OPS novels will find a lot to like here.
As I said, this was published in 2009 and isn’t Maberry’s first novel but it might be the one that pushed him over the edge as a superstar and best seller. I know I’ll be tagging along for future Joe Ledger novels and Maberry novels.
Highly Recommended, especially the audiobook with the supremely talented Ray Porter handling the narration.
© 2015 Rob H. Bedford
(Review copy purchased)