The summer I turned 30, I went to Great America with my two sisters and one brother-in-law. We rode the Screaming Eagle rollercoaster, one of those wooden rebuilds of old-time coasters, which (at the time) had the longest drop on the first hill of any rollercoaster in the world. As we reached the top of that hill, my sister turned to me and said, “It’s been nice knowing you.” Sure enough, that first drop about killed me; even worse (or better, depending on your perspective) was the series of corkscrew turns at high speed that came toward the end of the ride. I screamed so much that I completely lost my voice. Of course we rode the thing at least twice more that day. I had a ball.
You’re probably wondering what this story has to do with Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry. Well, substitute reading this book for riding that rollercoaster. It has all the same thrills, scares, horrifying drops and corkscrew turns. And I loved it at least as much as I loved The Screaming Eagle.
The premise of Patient Zero is that zombies are the newest terrorist threat. Yes, I know, zombies — again. Up until recent anthologies like The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams, and novels like Mira Grant’s NEWSFLESH trilogy,I hadn’t been a fan of zombies myself. In Maberry’s hands, they actually make a kind of sense. Using a technique borrowed from science fiction, Maberry explains zombies as a prion disease made communicable by a genius of a scientist who just happens to be an Islamic fundamentalist set on destroying the United States. Or wait — is the villain really the scientist, or someone else? Someone with a more American point of view having to do with profit? There is no shortage of evildoers in this novel.
The viewpoint character is Joe Ledger, a Baltimore police detective who is recruited by a shadowy federal agency fighting terrorism by all means possible, known as the Department of Military Science. (The Constitution and other legal protections don’t seem to have much play here, and in fact seem ludicrously naïve.) Ledger isn’t quite superhuman, but he comes close: he is astonishingly fast and never hesitates in completing his mission, no matter the obstacles thrown in his path. Either he thinks extremely quickly, or he simply turns off his brain and moves; it’s hard to tell which. Fortunately, though, he’s got brains as well as reflexes, and he is a delight to read in his first-person narration of the efforts of the DMS to fight the zombie threat.
The only flaw I can identify in this book is that an obvious clue goes unraveled by the very smart people in the DMS until the absolute last minute. Even then, the tension generated by Maberry’s sharp writing is only accentuated, as the reader thinks, “Come on, come on, don’t you get it?” and mentally urges the characters to figure it out.
Patient Zero is the first of a series, and I have other JOE LEDGER books waiting for my attention. I’m looking forward to them, because I think Ledger will be an interesting character to follow.