(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.)
I actually finished this, like, a week ago, but I’ve been struggling to find time to write the review. A part of it was daily life–the husband/father/teacher bit–a part of it was starting a collaboration with another writer on a project (I’ve never collaborated, so it’s terrifyingly excited and I spent each interval between messages neurotically wondering, “They didn’t realize I suck, did they?”); another part was trying to meet a couple of deadlines creeping up on me.
But, hey, it worked out that I’d post this on Saturday–which means #SomeoneElseSaturday! (Right? Has that become a thing yet? Y’know, where you go and praise someone else’s work and hashtag it #SomeoneElseSaturday? No? Fuck.)
Oh, and if you’re reading this, I get spoiler-y–but, to be fair, I find the people who tend to cry “Spoiler!” the loudest are kinda spoiled to begin with. (Man, I’m so loving and agreeable.)
In any event, here we are–Book Four of the Joe Ledger series, Assassin’s Code. This is my third time reading the book over the years–as I collect each new (or, given the fact that I’m slow on buying, new-ish) installment, I go back to the beginning and re-read. (Case in point, I’m re-reading Extinction Machine right now, but because, until recently, it was the last book I had, this is only my second time and I’m startled by how much isn’t familiar to me.)
For the TL:DR crowd–to me, this is the funnest of the Ledger books out of the first four (ignoring the novelty of the concept in Book One, Patient Zero) and, here, the characters–Ledger, Top, Bunny, Church, Vox, Ghost the Dog, Rudy, Bug (Bug!)–come into their own and run, fucker. I’m a character reader, so everything hinges on the characters playing true to the demands of the story. Alfie Bester, writer of The Stars! My Destination, is quoted as saying, “The book is the boss,” and that’s always meant, to me, that the characters–the people of the story–demand certain things. Assassin’s Code is a goddamned fun book because of this idea.
Anyway, when last we met our lovable series character, the Captain of an ultra-elite and top secret group called the Department of Military Sciences (the DMS, for short, and led by the enigmatic Mr. Church), in The King of Plagues, Ledger was still mourning the loss of his colleague and…girlfriend? (the term feels really out there to me, given the context)…Major Grace Courtland, at the end of Book Two–The Dragon Factory–when he gets yanked into a countdown of the modern Ten Plagues, initiated by a secret society that had, in its membership the Big Bad of Book One, Sebastian Gault, plus a man who knows the ins and outs of the DMS, plus Mr. Church–Hugo Vox. We also got an introduction to, now, series regular Circe O’Tree (I’m at the end of Book Five as I write this).
But, here in Book Four, it’s all about vampires with nukes, baby. Seriously. Ledger and Echo Team are in Iran on a deep-cover assignment that’s just wrapped up when, in the middle of getting coffee, someone puts a laser sight on his balls and gives him a phonecall. From there, it goes downhill as Ledger, a mysterious female assassin named Violin (I’ll get to that), and Echo Team try to stop a number of–and I’m not joking–vampires from setting off strategically placed nuclear weapons in an attempt to bring about perpetual night.
As I’ve said numerous times, Maberry’s strength as a writer comes from his ability to use this. He might plot and chart like a motherfucker, but it doesn’t feel that way. Ledger’s reactions feel organic to the demands of the events surrounding him. That’s a trick a lot of writers can’t pull off consistently, let alone in a goddamned series. Maberry can; Ledger, our hero of the series, has changed over time, but it doesn’t feel like it’s due to, say, Jonathan Maberry forgeting something about him.
But, that’s me, and literally everything else gets pushed to the backburner. As the series has continued, Maberry’s acknowledgement pages have grown longer as he’s gone further and further in terms of researching this tech or that biological element or–hey–what about Roswell (that’s a part of Book Five). Maberry has always done yeoman’s work when it comes to research (most of us Google some shit and then make the caveat, “If this wrong, blame me, not whoever I asked”) and then taken those answers to whatever fictional place his imagination made for the info. Even something as ridiculously B-movie sounding as zombies, clones, aliens, or–in Assassin’s Code–vampires comes from an attempt to learn as much science to ground it.
If you’re that kind of reader, you love Ledger for that reason (example: the super-computer MindReader in the series means as much to me as the answers it provides Ledger; to the more science-based crowd, they’ll love wondering how close actual tech is to that type of system). But, you don’t have to love–or even, really, pay attention to–the science in order to get into the book(s). I am not a hard SF fan–just never turned my dials–and any SF-flavored story I’ve loved has either been decidedly soft or used to form a foundation of the story but not be the story.
Maberry’s writing never lets the science–the novelty of a writer going “Look what I learned!”, which, with other writers, bores the hell out of me–do anything but what it’s supposed to do: offer a grounding for his characters to move.
I had quibbles with previous books, finding Courtland’s death in Book Two problematic, and the reveal of Hugo Vox in Book Three fairly panting, but here, we’re just going along for the ride, riding the wind with the characters and–whee!–that’s where I like it. The cribbing of history–there’s a lot of the Crusades here, but it works–aside, we’re in the moment as Ledger tries to insert himself into a metaphorical shoot-out between two different sides and fuck their days up in the name of saving the rest of the world.
Now, there’s always been a pulp edge to the Ledger series–well, more of a blade than an edge–and, man, does Maberry go full-tilt-boogie on that motherfucker in Assassin’s Code. This is action/thriller/balls-to-the-wall insanity–pick your term, it’s all fun, popcorn reading–the kind that makes getting back to the book kinda like being able to press PLAY on the film or show you’ve been dying to catch up on.
The propulsive writing and action; the thumbnail characterizations that completely work with the players; the goofy science (I suppose it’s possible; I also suppose the highest grade I ever got in any science course was a gift C-average, so don’t trust me on the science stuff, okay? Go read the acknowledgements page)–all these elements are on display and they ramp up the “fun” factor hard.
What’s also a relief is that, four books in, Maberry’s gotten a handle on how to get backstory and Ledger’s fractured psyche across gracefully. Up until this book, it’s always felt like he has to essentially stop the action dead to talk so that new readers don’t feel so completely at-sea. This makes sense–series can get more than a little convoluted–but it always made me think, “Fuck, just do a ‘Previously…’ section prior to the start of the novel.” But, in Assassin’s Code, he’s got the hang of it by now and I’m glad; his explanation of past events and Ledger’s past trauma come off the most fluid here, which gives those hypothetical new readers something to hang onto to keep from being lost.
My only “Really?” moment came in the errant times when Ledger thinks he hears Courtland’s voice. I have my own problems with the idea of a book series, and this is one of them–things popping up later on in the series that would’ve made more sense in earlier books (for example: in Book Three, Echo Team is fully fleshed out and there are flashbacks to previous events to introduce the new members, but the timeline’s wonky because when these characters came in, they should’ve been in Book Two, but weren’t). I get it–things occur to the writer that fit, but you can’t go back and revise a previously published book just for the fuck of it. In Book Three, Ledger’s still mourning Courtland, but he doesn’t hear her voice. Now, in Book Four, we hear her voice. Um.
A near-miss is Violin. There’s a backstory on her that could make it’s own review, but, upon introductions, we “know” we’re seeing the setup of Ledger’s next love interest. Except…it doesn’t quite come. Courtland’s introduction, in Book One, was, to me, fairly clumsy and heavy-handed and action-movie-trope-y. With Violin, it’s like Maberry realizes that it just wouldn’t work in a traditional way and to force it (as Courtland felt vaguely forced) would be to fuck it all up. He doesn’t, and the book is better for it.
On another note, this book is actually kind of sad–we see the end of any lingering villains. Except for Book Two, we saw updates on a number of villains. Hugo Vox plays a big part in Book Four, but there’s a resolution there. When we get to book five, The Extinction Machine, it will have all new Big Bads in it. That’s both a relief and a regret. I liked Vox. He was a motherfucker of a high order. Still.
So, Assassin’s Code. Vampires with nukes. Some religious history. Hugo Vox. Enough pulp to make a gallon of natural orange juice seem filtered. All so good, friends. Ledger’s the reason I actually started to like the idea of a book series. Without Maberry, I never would’ve bothered with Wilson’s Repairman Jack or Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and I’d be poorer for it.
Next, aliens. Oh yeah.