(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.)
What’s funny is that, as I write this review, I’m nearing the completion of the sixth book in the Joe Ledger series, Code Zero. Why the delay? Partly because I’m slowly working my way through various deadlines, but also partly because the last book Assassin’s Code was like the last book of a long-running storyline, and I gotta admit, I was sad to see it go.
For the TL;DR crowd: Extinction Machine, the fifth book in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series is probably the best opening for new readers to the series, aside from the first book, Patient Zero, itself. Chock full of the quick-draw action, thumbnail depictions (or reminders) that are vibrant enough to get into and root for the characters, Machine also balances all its backstory from previous novels the way a standalone novel would and a newer reader wouldn’t have to play catch-up to enjoy this one.
As opposed to the previous entries, this is only my second time reading Extinction Machine. Up until a few months ago, it was the most recent Ledger novel I owned. Every time I acquired a new one, I would re-read the previous. With that in mind, you can guess how often I’ve read the other books.
Because of that, I found that I’d forgotten huge swaths of the novel; whereas I could count on the beats in the other books, having read them so often, coming back to Book 5 was like reading it again for the first time. I was good at remembering everything up to the introduction of Junie Flynn, a supporting character who becomes (for now) a series regular, but everything after was just…blank.
Okay, here come the deets: Extinction Machine takes on the idea of aliens. When the president is abducted from his bed in the dead of night without a single alarm being tripped, Joe Ledger and his Echo Team are rolled out to stop the clock on the ransom that, unmet, could trigger one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit the planet. Also, aliens and cyberattacks.
What’s funny, for me, about Extinction Machine is that it goes right up to the line of “plausible” science fiction (technically, all the other stuff in the other books is “possible” if you had trillions of dollars, no laws, and no moral code or timetable), but doesn’t cross it. A yeoman when it comes to research, Maberry has always striven for novels that are as grounded as zombies, genetic monsters, and vampires with nukes can be. But it’s hard to bring in aliens without people wanting to bring in the tinfoil hats and Richard Dreyfus. To that end, Maberry leaves the issue…ambiguous. While he’ll go nitty-gritty about T-craft and the current scuttlebutt on the UFO community (he didn’t talk with Tom DeLonge, formerly of Blink-182, but that’s probably for the best), he leaves the actual topic of alien visitation as a “they’ve probably out there, they’ve probably visited, but I’m gonna keep them as indirect as I can within the framework of the story.” If you’re hoping Ledger uppercuts a Gray, check that expectation at the door.
Because, to Maberry (as far as I can see), the point isn’t the aliens but Ledger’s reaction to the crisis–namely, getting the president back through a ransom payment. I know the Ledger series is marketed as “sci-fi thriller” but that always seemed backwards to me; these are thrillers with elements of genre–whether they be SF or horror. You don’t need the nitty-gritty on T-craft or gene therapy or prions to enjoy the story; they’re there if you want them, but what Ledger’s doing is always going to be more interesting than a paragraph on how usable a crashed UFO engine is. However, “thriller with elements of genre” is hard to market and too wordy.
But, reading this, I was a little sad. All the backstory–which Maberry gets better at with each book–is presented perfectly for new readers…and that’s because all the plot lines from previous books, really, are over. The villain from Book One is in Book Three, but that’s done. Same with the mastermind behind Book Three and Book Four. With those novels, the backstory recap felt a little weighty because those elements still had repercussions within the new stories. Here? Those villains are gone, a status quo has been established as much as it can, and the series can, for now, present situations that new readers can dive in.
With that said, new characters–like the new members of Echo, or Junie Flynn–are brought in and they get a chance to stand out and introduce themselves. Flynn is interesting. With Book Four, Maberry toyed with giving Ledger another love interest, but didn’t. Here, he makes it blatant–Flynn is a viable partner for Ledger. This is interesting, because the situation with the almost-love in Book Four is still around. It could be all melodramatic and panting, but isn’t (mostly because the action moves too fast to pause like that) . I’ve always had problems with how the first relationship, between Ledger and Major Grace Courtland–Courtland was a great, well-articulated character that felt ill-used by the series trope of the tragic love (she wasn’t “fridged”, but the roll out of her from beginning to end always bugged me)–went, preferring how Maberry wrote the developing relationship between supporting characters Rudy (Ledger’s therapist friend) and Circe (Ledger’s boss’s daughter). Here, though, we get another well-articulated character, a person in her own right (some series have love interests just to have them, it seems), who can be a partner to Ledger and it doesn’t feel forced. I dug that.
Saying that, though, as the cast of characters grows, less and less time can be spent on them unless they’re top tier supporting. In the early books, there was much to the interactions of Ledger with his top two guys, Top and Bunny, with a lot of great chemistry and naturalism. As people come in, we get less of those moments–they still exist, but not as often or as deep. With the newbies, they’re not cardboard, but it takes a moment to get to know them–two books in the case of characters like sniper John Smith. As the books become more ensemble-like in its cast, Maberry’s having to work harder to get these characters breathing–the quick sketches that worked so well in the early books don’t have time here. Not a critique or a praise, but more of a note. Book 5 is halfway through where Maberry is now–writing Book Ten–and I’m curious to see how that develops.
So, there you go. Aliens. New loves. What felt like less focus on science–or it’s the same and I just didn’t notice–and more on action. A good intro book for anyone who doesn’t necessarily want to start from the beginning.
Next, the return of zombies. I can get behind that.