Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Jonathan Maberry’s PATIENT ZERO

(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)


For years, I avoided any series character. On a long enough timeline, all series characters become caricature, all writers (you can almost feel this happening) feeling like they have to deliver the fan-favorites from previous installments. Or, at the very least, they have to constantly remind new readers of certain things, a graph that pops up usually within the first thirty or fifty pages and breaks momentum down.  I love Stephen King, but the final three books of the Dark Tower saga feel always more lightweight than, say, the first and second, pulled down by the caricatures that had replaced Roland, Jake, Eddie, Savannah (also, King himself popping into the book always bugged me; a lazy way of explaining something).  The third book, The Wasteland, had enough cringe-worthy moments at the beginning that I almost died along with the giant bear.

And then I read a glowing FANGO review of Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero and thought, “What the hell.”

It was Maberry’s Joe Ledger character and F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack that changed my view–somewhat (the stopping the action to explain a prior event lingers in the mid-series RJ books).

When I got two new Joe Ledger novels–Code Zero and Predator One–over the holidays, I decided to take the entire series out for a spin and get back into the world of the DMS.  (Another strike against series; I can’t read the latest installment without catching up with the prior books, something that becomes imperative if the lapse between reads is very long.)

Joe Ledger is a Baltimore cop who gets, essentially, shanghaied into the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), by Mr. Church, a mystery man who’s apparently immune to red tape or good taste (he chews vanilla wafers constantly, in a shocking denial of flavor).  Meanwhile, various factions–some corporate, some fundamentalist–are cooking up, basically, a zombie plague, and it’s up to Ledger, Church, Major Grace Courtland to stop it before it can be unleashed.

As a standalone novel, it’s pretty solid, but it’s in this thinking that some of the writing gets under a reader’s skin.  The post-climax is Maberry laying the series groundwork, a series of passages that could’ve been excised easily without the reader even noticing.

Moreover, at times, the structure is predictable–when Courtland is introduced, even though Maberry fleshes her out well, a reader knows that she’s going to be the love-interest for Ledger–and that makes some of the beats anticipated, which takes away from the flavor and reaction.

But, for those two things, Maberry writes with a propulsive, yank-you-forward style, the chapters and paragraphs short and punchy, producing a staccato rhythm that can pull you in like a really good drum solo.  Ledger is likable, and Maberry does a yeoman’s work to ensure that the supporting cast is as fleshed out as Ledger or Courtland; Gus Dietrich, another supporting cast member, is probably the only one who doesn’t evolve much beyond G.I. Joe action figure, leaving the most interesting thing about him to be his name.

The plot itself reads like the best action and horror popcorn movies–the ones you can enjoy without trying to overthink too much, but when Maberry goes deep on motivations or character, it doesn’t feel awkward or out-of-place.  Maberry’s capable of sharp, deep writing, but it feels clear that he’s resigned the Joe Ledger series to being “fun”.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; not everything written has to about Something Very Deep to Make You Examine Your Life and Become Disappointed Yourself.  Reading, first and foremost, should be enjoyable and I can’t tolerate any form of snobbery that denies that fundamental (to me, anyway) right.

Which is awesome because Patient Zero, as well as the other novels in the Ledger series, is fun.

You can’t complain about that, now can you?


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