11 January 2009

Book review: Patient Zero

Hello, welcome to another installment in LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Patient Zero
By Jonathan Maberry (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009 / Softcover $14.95)

Imagine the TV show 24 and its ceaseless suspense against ticking-clock terrorist threats, then mix it with Resident Evil. That’s what you’ll find in Jonathan Maberry’s science-fiction-themed thriller Patient Zero. It would be easy to invoke the specter of Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later (the book itself does that), but the “gun down all ‘em zombies” style is more akin to the videogame and movie series Resident Evil, so I’m sticking with that comparison.

Now that you’ve imagined this scenario, imagine that it’s all entertaining and fast-moving, and you’ll have a solid conception of what to expect in Patient Zero. It surprised me despite my initial misgivings about the clichĂ© sound of a yet another zombie apocalypse story. “Anti-terrorist squad vs. mindless dead.” Seen it before, but Maberry is a fine-tuned mystery writer, and instead of delivering the dry and dull objective style of a Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, he digs deep into the first-person POV of our hero, Joe Ledger, Baltimore PD turned member of a black ops groups called the DMS (Department of Military Sciences).

The novel switches between the point of view of Ledger and his work with the DMS against a new prion disease that can create a sort of re-animated corpse known as a “Walker,” and the third-person view of the villains behind it: a Middle Eastern extremist group in collusion with English billionaire Sebastian Gault and the resources of his company Gen2000. Combining first and third-person narration presents a risk for an author, and the chapters with the terrorists and Sebastian Gault are weaker than the time spent with Joe Ledger, but this isn’t a large enough flaw to dim the exciting, headfirst action. Gault’s story can also turn very interesting when it isn’t interrupting the flow with the DMS’s hunt to clean out the Walker infection.

The storyline is a simple one. The enigmatic Mr. Church tries to recruit Ledger into the DMS, a process that takes the first quarter of the book, so he and the DMS team can get to work on the present threat of the “living dead” disease that might zombify the whole country at any moment. Ledger and the tough hombres on his Echo Team have gruesome face-offs with the infected Walkers, and learn a traitor squirms somewhere in their midst. Meanwhile, the terrorists and their corporate backers put the pieces in place for the ultimate horrific attack, but are both groups actually working together for the same goal?

The thrills comes almost nonstop, so even though most of the DMS team consists of a faceless bunch of grunts—Ledger excepted—it’s hard not to hop on for the ride. Mr. Church and Ledger’s friend Rudy Sanchez are well-sketched characters, but the rest of the DMS cast takes on stock roles, especially romantic interest Grace Courtland. Maberry won’t give readers much time to worry about this, as he throws Echo Team into another grisly fight to the death with the living dead. The “first-person-shooter” aspect of these fights sometimes overwhelms the reader (you feel you should save the game and up down the controller for a while), but I’d rather have an author risk over-entertaining me than slack off and put me into a coma.

Horror fans who don’t usually read military thrillers will probably enjoy Patient Zero, since the author clearly has done his homework on the zombie genre. It may not sit as well with straight thriller readers, since Maberry has no hesitation in pouring on the blood and cannibalistic fury of the Walkers. The science involved in creating non-supernatural walking corpses get a few explanations from the scientists talking-heads, and none of it is satisfactory to please a hard science-fiction lover, but it’s “fuzzy” enough and filled with the right buzzwords to keep the story going for everybody else, and Maberry doesn’t lean too hard on on the medical science involved.

From my personal politics perspective, Maberry plays the paranoid patriotic and anti-Arab card too strong. I managed to stomach most of it; it isn’t a novel I would have selected for myself, but the targeted crowd will no doubt love it and will demand more from the DMS. According to the publicity material, more is already on the way.

Readers interested in a preview of the book can read a free online story, “Countdown,” that elaborates on the opening of the book but does not contain spoilers.

Patient Zero has a street date of 9 March 2009.