Thursday, 16 October 2008
‘Patient Zero’ – Jonathan Maberry (Gollancz)
For the last three years I’ve entered SFX magazine’s ‘Pulp Idol’ short story competition and, for the last three years, each of my stories has failed to get any mention at all. Oh well, there’s always next year...
This year’s ‘stroke of genius’ was a tale of terrorists seeking to cause mayhem by becoming zombies during the London rush hour. Not only did it fail to get anywhere but it turns out that Jonathan Maberry has only gone and beaten me to the punch with a full length novel of zombie terrorism that will be published by Gollancz in April next year. I’d be as sick as a dog about this if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘Patient Zero’ is a bloody good read...
What’s the one thing that’s worse than having to kill a man? Having to kill the same man all over again before he can tear your throat out with his teeth... This is the situation that Baltimore detective Joe Ledger has just had to face and he’s about to find that things can get even worse than that... The Department of Military Sciences are desperately trying to counter a terrorist plot to flood America with reanimated corpses that are ravenous for human flesh and Joe finds himself on the team. There’s a terrorist cell to destroy, ‘zombie science’ to decipher and a race to find out who’s ultimately responsible before all hell breaks loose. However, plans within plans and a ‘mole’ within the Department mean that this is a race that will go right down to the wire...
As a rule, I cannot stand ‘thrillers’ involving evil terrorists being stamped on by ‘Black Ops’ teams. The blurb always sounds cool but the books themselves always end up reading like the author has a list of impressive sounding vehicles and weaponry and wants to show off a bit. ‘Wow, Agent X is really hardcore; he must be because he’s packing a machine gun with a lot of letters (and a big number) to its name. And it’s got laser sighting as well? Brilliant!’ Give me a break, it may be necessary but I’d rather just read the story if it’s all the same to you...
Add zombies to the mix though (and keep them at the forefront of the plot where they need to be) and all of a sudden things are different. Things are so different, in fact, that all of a sudden I’m faced with a book that I just absolutely had to finish. I had no choice in the matter.
I’ll be honest right now and say that anything involving zombies will always get my full and undivided attention even if it’s rubbish (yes, I sat all the way through ‘Hard Rock Zombies on DVD...). ‘Patient Zero’ is no ‘Hard Rock Zombies’ and had me gripped right from the awesome opening lines,
‘When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world.
And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.’
Right from the start, Maberry doesn’t give you time to even take a breath. You’re taken off on a ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ plot that pits a fledgling US Intelligence Department against an enemy that can raise the dead and is one step away from becoming immortal themselves. Zombies may be linear in their thinking (walk, eat humans, repeat) but that is not a criticism that can be levelled at the plot. In the world of espionage and terrorism everyone has a hidden agenda and no-one can be trusted. Add an almost paralysing sense of urgency to affairs (constant reminders of the time along with short snappy chapters filled with prose that’s full of hooks) and you have a story that has still got me going over it even now. ‘Patient Zero’ is certainly a book that will stand a re-read or two. (Especially the bits where Ledger has to infiltrate enemy installations literally crawling with zombies, I had to keep remembering to take a breath!)
Maberry places great emphasis on the plot but doesn’t sacrifice characterisation for it. While you may have seen the character types before (tough cop, mysterious boss, hard as nails SAS lady with a soft centre) Maberry makes them people in their own right and also people that you really feel like you want to get to know over the course of the book.
There’s a fine balancing act involved here as treachery plays a part on both sides, and you don’t find out what’s been going on right until the very end, but Maberry plays it right by not going for cartoonish ‘James Bond villainy’. Following the course of evil can really be for reasons as mundane as money and no-one’s character suffers as a result.
Is this a perfect read? Not quite. ‘Tech-speak’ still managed to slither past the bone crushing zombie action and get in the way of my reading experience, it’s just not for me but don’t let that put you off though. It’s not just the tech-speak either, a lecture on the root causes of the zombie virus is designed to mostly go over Ledger’s head but ended up bypassing mine as well... I guess that’s another fine line to walk (in terms of showing the reader how a character can be confused without confusing the reader as well)) and this time Maberry stumbled off it a little... When faced with a read that entertains as much as it chills, I was more than happy to let these small niggles go.
‘Patient Zero’ is definitely a zombie story for the twenty first century, it has big ideas and it’s right there in your face (trying to bite it off). If you like zombie fiction then I reckon you’ll enjoy this. Look out for ‘Patient Zero’ in April next year.
Nine and a Half out of Ten