Sunday, 15 December 2013

Not Qute Book Review Corner: Patient Zero, Jonathan Maberry

Before I begin, I'm going to say up front that I liked Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero. I'm saying that now, to balance out what's to come. I picked this up on the free shelf of my local store, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys pulp horror with a modern twist. Night's Black Agents gamers may find it especially useful, particularly since it demonstrates exactly the kind of Vampyramid - and its collapse, as per Double Tap - that they'll be fighting against.

Maberry is a relatively new author. He's been a professional writer since 1978, but it wasn't until his 2006 Pine Deep series - the first of which earned him a Stoker (Best First Novel) Award - that his fiction really started to get noticed. He's also written a string of non fiction and comics stuff, but the book I'm concentrating on here is the first in his fantasy bioterrorism series. There are five in print so far, with two more known to be on the way in 2014 and 2015, and he's been publishing one of these a year since 2009's Patient Zero.

Patient Zero kicks off with an action-packed armed raid on a terror cell operating within the United States. In a pitched gun battle, series hero Joe Ledger puts two .45 calibre rounds into a suspicious crazy who tries to bite him. All seems well, and the corpses are taken off to the hospital for autopsy. Except all isn't well; that dead fella Ledger shot gets up again and starts eating people, causing an incident that eventually results in the death of everyone in the hospital, up to and including a substantial number of the Department of Military Intelligence's best agents. The DMI, anxious to get on top of this ASAP, starts recruiting new blood, and Ledger's top of its list of potential candidates.

Ledger - all together now, in the key of E - is a smart-mouthed maverick loose cannon who gets results. Before he's been on the job ten minutes he's offered a chance to become leader of DMI's new Echo Team - Bravo and Charlie being somewhat dead - so he promptly marches into the room, kicks seven shades out of all the other candidates, and promotes himself commander by virtue of being biggest kung-fu badass. From there, it's a crazy romp through a world of mad science, as the team tries to find out how terrorists got hold of the zombie virus, and to stop whatever mad scheme the terrorists have in mind.

It's pulp in the Sax Rohmer tradition, with the Fu Manchu role taken by super terrorist El Mujahid, and the sexpot Fah lo Suee played by his devious wife, Amirah, who devises the zombie virus. They have the help of self-made pharmaceutical billionaire Gault, who thinks he can use their cause to make a fortune for himself by selling anti-zombie meds to the US after the outbreak. Gault provides the technological expertise and capital, while the husband-and-wife team supplies the genius and the muscle. Will Gault and Amirah hoodwink her cuckolded husband, or is this all part of some greater scheme?

It all hangs together fairly well. It's a little too jingoistic for my taste, and while I'm not going to quarrel with the science, I do have to wonder why on earth Maberry thought it necessary to have a female SAS front-line combat officer as a major secondary character when the SAS famously doesn't accept female recruits. Well, I know why, I suppose; the SAS is the one British regiment American readers will recognize as being reliably badass, and therefore worthy to fight alongside Joe Ledger.  It just seems so silly.

I did enjoy this book, but I'm not sure I'd rush to pick up the rest of the series. If I did, it would have to be on sale; I'd hate to pay full price. In part that's because of the unpleasant itch at the back of my head, that maybe this really is just the Yellow Peril reskinned with a more acceptable - if that's the right word - enemy. But it's also because my heart sank when I realized that Maberry's been publishing one a year of these ever since Patient Zero.

Maybe he does write that fast. Some authors do; I can't remember if it was Raymond Chandler or his contemporary Hammett who said that a writer who doesn't publish a book a year isn't really trying, but whichever it was, the dictum stands. But I can't help feeling that this output is less Maberry's speed than it is the publisher's diktat, much as fantasy authors now seem always to have to write a trilogy rather than just one very good book. Trilogies sell, but more importantly they ensure an author's name is kept fresh, and the revenue stream keeps flowing. Liked Attack of the Killer Cliches? Then be sure to look out for Attack of the Cliche Killers, coming out next May!

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it does seem as if that's the only song the publishers know by heart. It means the story never ends, and anything like structure is thrown out the window. After all, if the story actually had a satisfactory conclusion then there'd be no reason to tune in next week and see how Doc Shadow managed to evade the clutches of Sinister Claw. It also means that plot points get reused, since there really isn't time to work out a new McGuffin or plan out a different style. Villains will come and never really go. 'How did you escape the exploding volcano, Doctor Devastation? Seems like your goose was cooked when the bombs went off.' 'Ah, thereby hangs a tale!'

No. There's precisely where the tale doesn't hang. It sags. It lies there, limp and deformed, bereft of purpose. It might have some superficial appeal, but who's going to remember it a month or so after they finish reading it?


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