Patient Zero, by Jonathan Maberry
Jonathan Maberry‘s got a history. A history that involves zombies. His previous book, Zombie CSU, was an attempt to draw together all the factors that might cause and spread an undead outbreak, and examine said factors with a detached forensic magnifying glass, or more likely, a powerful electron microscope. This history has obviously contributed to his latest novel, his first in the UK via Gollancz, Patient Zero.
In a recent interview Maberry commented that Patient Zero is a thriller – and there’s no denying that it is indeed a fast-paced and violent journey to prevent the spread of a spectacular plague developed by fundamentalist terrorists. There’s no denying that this plague kills and reanimates humans, the result being fast, strong, bloodthirsty, flesh-eating zombies. So is it a thriller, is it horror? Who cares? Patient Zero is a wonderful bio-apocalypse-in-the-making accompaniment to David Moody’s Hater, also recently published by Gollancz.
Patient Zero definitely benefits from the extensive research Mayberry conducted for Zombie CSU – especially the medical and research professions, the military and civil security forces, and his practical background in martial arts. Out of the ‘non-fictitious fiction’ seemingly came the fiction – all of these elements comprise the DNA of the main character, Joe Ledger, a life-and-battle-weary detective with the Baltimore Police Department, ex-army and a martial arts expert; skills that come in extremely handy when confronted with the Seif al Dein (The Sword of the Faithful) virus.
Ever since Max Brooks’ seminal World War Z and the 28 Days and Weeks films, it feels like there’s been a race between authors and film-makers to come up with an ‘as-scientifically-credible-as-possible’ zombie virus. Lines have blurred – are they zombies, or infected people infused with unstoppable hate, or rage; are they dead, undead or just human? Should zombies run or shamble? These things are important! And Maberry’s Seif al Dein virus gives the reader an intriguingly posited, and ultimately convincing raison d’etre for the origin, development and spread of the disease. Anyway, enough of the zombie geekery…
As far as traditional thrillers go Patient Zero ticks all the turn-the-page buttons with action blasting into being at exactly the right junctures. The first person almost-noir of Ledger is nicely balanced by the sharp and smooth depictions of the terrorists and funding organisations as they develop the virus in hidden hi-tech environments. Ledger’s disgruntled recruitment into the secretive Department of Military Sciences, his battles for the respect of his team, and the initial information gathering occur in real-time, whilst the reader is also taken back six days to witness the ruthless field-testing of the infected on unsuspecting locals in the barren wilds of Afghanistan.
As the chase to track the terrorists and prevent the unleashing of Seif al Dein in the US, Patient Zero becomes a rollicking sequence of bloody, detailed military operations and desperate blind fanaticism. And as with all good thrillers there are crosses and double-crosses to be solved on both sides and the narrative tightens its hold as the timeline of events moves closer together towards a suitably blood-soaked climax.
Patient Zero is the first in a loose trilogy of bio-terror novels; the second is The Dragon Factory in 2010, and The King Of Plagues follows in 2011. As with David Moody’s Hater, Patient Zero does feel like something new, but in reality it’s a hybrid that revolves around Maberry’s ability to successfully incorporate horror elements into a contemporary post 9/11 hotbed of political intrigue, global corporate aspirations and military/national wills; an ability that I’m sure, will manifest time and again in subsequent Joe Ledger novels.