I've been meaning to read Jonathan Maberry's Joe Ledger series for a number of years now. Having finally dived into Patient Zero, the first Ledger book, I'm immediately left kicking myself 1) for having waited so long, and 2) because now I have a dozen audiobooks between the core Ledger series, short story collections, and an anthology book involving Maberry's creation that I must proceed to binge posthaste.
Imagine 24 with zombies and you have a very basic understanding of Patient Zero's framework. Joe Ledger is an action hero in the Jack Bauer mold, or maybe John McClane is a more apt comparison given Ledger's tendency to crack wise and spurn authority, up against a ticking clock and a seemingly endless supply of terrorists to confront and kill. What could have been your by-the-book post-9/11 military thriller, though, is elevated to a whole other higher level of bad-assery by a wonderful mixing and intermingling of various other genres.
Maberry introduces us to the Department of Military Sciences (DMS) in a book that leans heavily on its genre tropes but succeeds in making them feel if not entirely original than at least fresh, comfortably familiar, and welcome. Riding high on the success of 9/11, a band of Middle Eastern terror cells within the US are preparing to launch a biological weapons attack that will introduce an unstoppable plague and destroy America. If not for the welcome injection of plenty of high-tech wizardry and terrific horror-based set pieces, Patient Zero could have been just another Vince Flynn clone. Instead, Maberry takes the military technothriller and turns it sideways by forcing a team of special ops point-men (and -women) to confront a horror genre staple. The bioweapon isn't just your run of the mill plague virus, like Ebola, but a genetically engineered plague that can spark a zombie outbreak.
To put it simply, Patient Zero is freaking awesome, and the premise behind it is brilliant. Maberry's taken two of my favorite genres - military technothrillers and horror - and smashed them together into a wonderful, perfectly formed hybrid. This sucker is practically non-stop action; a mid-point set-piece at a warehouse is deliriously violent and intensely claustrophobic, and the story is routinely punctuated with gunplay and fisticuffs galore. In addition to all the brawn and bravura there's a whole lot of brains - and not just the zombie food stuff! Maberry takes the zombie genre and explores it from an honest-to-goodness real world basis. What are the military tactics that would be used to confront such an outbreak? The forensics? The actual science? We spend a lot of time in the field with Ledger and his crew of Echo Team, but Maberry doesn't shy away from all the lab work and biochemistry that goes into giving Patient Zero a grounded, realistic edge to make it all scarily plausible.
It's clear a helluva lot of thought and research went into making Patient Zero a credible thriller, one that's as high in science and combat acumen as it is in horror. Making it even better, though, is Ray Porter's narration. This is my first Porter audiobook, and his reading here is impactful enough to have sold me on the rest of the Ledger series in audio format. This dude is an outstanding narrator and Patient Zero showcases his versatility marvelously. He can really sell the rapid-fire action but it’s in the deeply emotional moments of combat and the resultant fallout from the darker corners of zombie violence Maberry writes where Porter truly shines. He’s incredible to listen to! Porter draws you in with subtlety, gets your blood pumping at the intense highs of a grueling action sequence, and then emotionally devastates you with a perfectly delivered line. He's a seriously phenomenal talent, and in Joe Ledger Maberry writes a multidimensional hero that allows Porter to give a nuanced and multi-layered performance.
Ledger is a smart-ass tough guy, but one who also possesses a highly welcome degree of self-awareness. He understands his propensity for violence and the consequences of his anger. The dude is blessedly in touch with his feelings, something more of our masculine action heroes could do with, and not only regularly meets with his therapist, Rudy Sanchez, but is freaking best friends with the guy! He even encourages the testosterone-laden boys of Echo Team to consult with Rudy and emotionally unload after some particularly nasty encounters. It's absolutely wonderful to see such a positive portrayal of mental health and from an alpha male hero no less. Fantastic work, Mr. Maberry (and thank you).
Patient Zero hit all the right notes for me the whole way through (although I do have some questions about Ledger's military history, which I suspect runs a bit deeper and blacker than is alleged here, but only time will tell), and I positively love the horrifying spin Maberry has given the military thriller. I mean, Jack Ryan and Mitch Rapp are great and all, but they ain't fighting zombies, so Ledger is already at least one step up from those guys. Maberry very well may have just ruined Tom Clancy and Vince Flynn for me in one fell swoop, in fact (but again, only time will tell there, too).
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