(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:
(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.)
So I’m back in the Joe Ledger game with the third book in the series, The King of Plagues, as I work my way up to the new Ledger books in my TBR pile that I haven’t read: Code Zero and Predator One–the problem of reading a series one by one, at least for me, is that I have to go back and remember all that backstory.
Last time, I’d said that the second book, The Dragon Factory, felt like Maberry was struggling with finding the rhythm of a series, trying to push against the limits of the format, and, in one case, lapsing into standard trope with the “love interest”. It’s not a bad book, but, to me, it’s the weakest of the five I’ve read.
Here, in the third book, Maberry says, “Fuck it,” and goes for the throat, telling a story that yanks the viewer along at greater speed than even the first book, Patient Zero (it’s a pace he’ll keep up with the fourth book, Assassin’s Code, as well).
The hero, Joe Ledger–former Baltimore detective, former Ranger, former boy-band member, most voted to overwhelm an open mic night (two of those things might not be true)–is unofficially retired from the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), after his superior and girlfriend, Major Grace Courtland, was killed at the end of the last book (I had issues with that). Prior to the novel’s beginning, he’s hunted Grace’s killer and brought rough justice and is now in London, laying low.
Until DMS head Mr. Church (not his real name) pulls him back, investigating the bombing of a London hospital and thus begins a race against the clock to stop the modern recreation of the Ten Plagues as perpetuated by shadow group the Seven Kings. There are one of two major surprises in this novel, plot-wise, one of which is a spoiler I won’t ruin; the other is the return of Book One antagonist Sebastian Gault as the new King of Plagues.
I said, early on, that Maberry in this series is writing pulp–check-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn fiction. He works his ass off and the stories are good, but he’s not trying to replace Jonathan Safran Foer, or anything. He comes into his own here, going full on supervillain with Gault and the Seven Kings. It’s fun.
But it does have it’s drawbacks, stemming–and this sounds familiar–the handling of Grace Courtland. Maberry is an excellent characterizer–no, it’s not a word, and, fuck you, I’m using it, anyway–never settling for cardboard cutouts. Thus, Courtland’s death in the last book bugged the ever-loving fuck out of me because it was so pat; of course our hero would lose his love at the climax of the final battle, just as the story’s been signalling the entire time.
Here, in The King of Plagues, the problem lies with how Maberry allows Ledger to deal with it. As readers, we loved Courtland in the first book and were rightfully pained when she died in the second. We want her killer, the cloned assassin Conrad Veder, to get what’s coming to him. And, in the beginning of the book, we discovered he did.
And it happened off-fucking-screen. We do not see Ledger get the beginnings of closure; we the readers don’t get the closure of seeing the guy skinned alive (or, y’know, whatever Ledger did to kill him), and that’s a missed beat for me.
Moreover, if Maberry had included it, he would’ve had a nice bit of symmetry. Throughout Plagues, he sketches out Gault’s motivation for going all Dr. Doom on everything by stemming it at how hollow and wounded he felt by the betrayal of his love Amarah (I might have spelled that wrong) at the end of Patient Zero and he’s going to kill all emotion by killing everything else, essentially (there’s more to it than that, of course, but go read the goddamned book for the blow-by-blow). On the other side of the scale, Ledger is driven to stop Gault and the Plague while being haunted by Grace. C’mon, it’s a layup so easy my cat could make it. Maybe it was spacing, maybe Maberry didn’t want to do it (or thought it stupid, which I guess is possible), but I would’ve loved that balance. The King of Plagues *could’ve* been a book about being haunted, which would’ve been a nice subtext. It doesn’t and, for some, that’s going to be a let-down.
For others, you get to see Bono make a piss-poor cup of tea for Ledger. That’s okay, too.
In the next book, we’ll have nuclear weapons and a pseudo-rational explanation of vampires. It’s kinda balls-to-the-wall.