Patient Zero: Like riding The Screaming Eagle

Jonathan Maberry 1. Patient Zero, 2. The Dragon Factory, 3. The King of Plaguesfantasy book reviews Jonathan Maberry Joe Ledger 1. Patient ZeroPatient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

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.

~Terry Weyna

fantasy book reviews Jonathan Maberry Joe Ledger 1. Patient ZeroAs a huge fan of both James Rollins’ Sigma Force novels and zombie fiction, I had a strong feeling going in that I would enjoy reading Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero, but even then I didn’t anticipate how awesome the book would be…

For one, the action depicted in Patient Zero kicks ass. Whether it’s fast and furious gunplay, brutal hand-to-hand combat, or zombies tearing a person to shreds, the action scenes are written with such energy and intensity that it feels like you’re watching it all happen live. The hand-to-hand combat in particular is just terrific:

“Make yourself comfortable. We’ve been in here for almost three hours trying to sort out which one of us should head this team.”

“Really,” I said and kicked him the balls.

He let out a thin whistling shriek of pain that I ignored as I grabbed the shoulder of his windbreaker and jerked him down hard and fast so that he collided with Apeman and they both went down.

I spun off that and stomped down on the Joker’s foot and then pivoted to bring the same foot up again, heel first into his nuts. He didn’t scream, but he hissed real loud; and I nailed Sergeant Rock with a palm-shot to the chest that sent him sprawling onto the food table, which collapsed under him.

That left Jolly Green Giant standing and he gaped at me in shock for maybe a half second before he started to swing; but that was a half second too long, and I darted forward and drove the extended secondary index-finger knuckle of my right hand into his left sinus, right next to his nose, giving it a fast counterclockwise twist on impact. He went back like he’d taken a .45 round in the face.

I pivoted again to see Apeman pushing his way out from under Scarface but he was only halfway to his feet and I swept his supporting leg out from under him and he fell hard on his tailbone, almost — but not quite — catching himself by planting his hand flat on the ground. I stamped on his outstretched fingers and then chop-kicked him in the chest before spinning off to face Sergeant Rock…

But Patient Zero isn’t just nonstop, balls to the walls, testosterone-fueled action and adventure. On the contrary, one of the book’s greatest strengths is its balance. So stabilizing the intense action and adventure is a really solid mix of characterization, humor, storytelling, and conceivability.

Of the characters, Joe Ledger is a very likable leading man, not just because he’s a badass action hero and a “world-class smartass”— which is one of the reasons why his narrative voice is so fun to read — but also because he has a human side. He’s compassionate toward other people, loyal to his friends, and experiences regret for what he’s done. On top of that, he’s intelligent and possesses an interesting psyche which is dominated by three different personalities: the Modern Man, the Warrior, and the Cop. The other characters in the book — which include the fanatical terrorist El Mujahid, the mad scientist Amirah, Sebastian Gault who wants to become the richest person in the world, Major Grace Courtland, the mysterious Mr. Church — are more stereotypical and not as three-dimensional, but still possess greater depth than most characters found in similar movies or videogames. Plus, it’s always a blast to read from a villain’s point of view.

Story-wise, Patient Zero uses a number of tried-and-true plot devices including the ultrasecret taskforce, a traitor within the DMS and U.S. government, backstabbing among the bad guys, a romance developing between Joe and one of the secondary characters, trying to thwart a weapon of mass destruction, and Joe facing off against the bad guy in a final showdown. But this never becomes stale because the book is so well-written with superb execution, very comfortable prose, and electric pacing.

Lastly, what I loved about Patient Zero was its plausibility. For example, even though the book features flesh-eating zombies and futuristic technology like MindReader, most of the concepts in Patient Zero are based on actual science such as prion diseases and fatal familial insomnia. Factor in the realistic post-9/11 mindset, a convincing viewpoint of terrorists, and the seemingly accurate portrayal of counterterrorist agencies, and the scenario in Patient Zero suddenly seems very possible, and thus, very scary. Adding to the book’s conceivability are heroes who are fallible — they fall for traps, are constantly outsmarted by the enemy, can break down emotionally, and are not invincible — and examinations on moral issues and the psychological effects of killing a person, especially a zombie who was once an innocent child, mother, father, brother, sister or grandparent.

In the end, Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero is the ultimate page-turner, a novel that hooks you with its opening sentences:

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.

is thoroughly fun to read, immensely entertaining, and is just impossible to put down. I loved every moment I spent with it and highly recommend this blockbuster-in-the-making to anyone looking for an awesome time.

~Robert Thompson

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

View all posts by Terry Weyna


  1. Terry — what a great review! I can feel the roller coaster.

  2. The cover has me paralyzed. I wouldn’t be able to open it — I’m too scared!

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