To label “Patient Zero” a mere zombie-novel is to do it terrible injustice. Multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jonathan Maberry has deftly woven a fictional tale that is not bound just to the horror genre. With “Patient Zero” the reader is treated to a blend of styles ranging from pure horror to military/techno thriller.
Maberry has had great success with his Pine Deep Trilogy (“Ghost Road Blues”, “Dead Man’s Song” and “Bad Moon Rising”) – a series that has drawn comparison to the earlier works of Stephen King. While this was a just comparison, Mayberry’s success was purely within the horror genre. With the release of “Patient Zero”, Maberry should widen his readership considerably as he has created a work that cannot be bound merely on genre.
The hero of “Patient Zero” is a former Baltimore detective by the name of Joe Ledger. Ledger is a tough-as-nails type with a prior military background that makes him more of a weapon than just a crime fighter. Ledger is instantly endearing and full of wisecracks – as well as more than a little mystery in his background. He finds himself recruited by an ultra-secret branch of the government known as the Department of Military Science (DMS). In the wake of the tragic events on 9/11, groups such as the DMS have been established to continue the never-ending fight against global terrorism. The DMS is no ordinary group as their focus is on science and how it is applied to threats of bio-terrorism.
Ledger is recruited a DMS leader known only as Mr. Church. Church is a close-to-the-vest type that is cold as ice and seemingly has influence and reach over all bodies of government, up to and including the President of the United States himself. Because of Ledger’s success on the Baltimore P.D. along with his own Army Ranger and martial-arts background he is a perfect candidate to become Captain of a team put together by the DMS. Ledger’s team includes former military, CIA and even front-line assassins. His introduction to his team involves a test where Ledger is forced to beat his men into submission in an extremely short time-frame. Joe Ledger does not disappoint, but now must engage and lead the men he just brutalized into fighting for him.
Ledger’s DMS team is not put together just for the fun of it. Their mission is something straight out of science fiction and the enemy they will be fighting unlike anything they have ever seen before. A deadly bioweapon known as the Seif al Din (Sword of the Faithful) pathogen has been created Author a fanatic group of bioterrorists who threaten to unleash it upon their enemies. This pathogen creates a prion disease within the body of anyone exposed to or injected by it and in sense turns them into a ravenous and extremely contagious being capable of incredible violence. It also changes the biological composition of those who are infected by the pathogen, turning them into what we more commonly know as zombies!
Upon being debriefed by Mr. Church on this threat, Ledger quickly realizes why he was recruited for the DMS assignment. Just prior to the events that brought him to the DMS, Ledger participated in a Homeland Security mission as part of the Baltimore P.D. involving a warehouse raid of alleged terrorists. While taking out this team of terrorists, Ledger comes up against a fierce and resilient opponent who he assumes is drug-addicted. Ledger puts this extremely aggressive enemy down only to find out from Mr. Church that his opponent did not stay down. This individual, labeled Patient Zero, reanimated and attacked several members of the hospital staff where he was taken. This hushed over incident led to the DMS being called in to contain the situation by razing the entire hospital and its’ inhabitants.
All the DMS and U.S. Government know about the group behind this threat is that a terrorist known as El Mujahid is heavily involved. He is a fanatic in the vein of Osama Bin Laden and his name literally translates to “the fighter of the way of Allah”. As Ledger’s team and the rest of the DMS begin facing off with these pathogen-infected beings, or “walkers”, they soon uncover a conspiracy that may not just involve Middle Eastern terrorists. There may be a different agenda involving multi-billion dollar big business in the form of global pharmaceuticals. How can Ledger and his team fight an enemy when they can not clearly define what the true purpose of the bioweapon is?
As with every major national holiday or political event following 9/11, the U.S. is on high alert for another terrorist attack. The possibility of such an attack on the Fourth of July in Philadelphia, PA, to coincide with a ceremony unveiling the new Liberty Bell looks to be just the type of event the terrorists would strike at. After a few skirmishes go badly it becomes evident to Ledger and Church that there is a leak within DMS itself and someone on the inside must be working with the terrorists to ensure that their plan is carried out to the end. Is it simply greed or just religious-based motives that drives those involved with the terrorists? “Patient Zero” will keep you guessing right up to the last page on this question.
Jonathan Maberry has entered territory that might have been once covered by Michael Crichton. The difference here is that, where Crichton would delve deep into scientific detail at the risk of going over the average readers head, Maberry gives just enough scientific premise to keep the reader informed while never derailing the fast-paced narrative.
At their best, zombie stories have been used as symbolic social commentary used to scathe everything from political ideologies to the over-saturation of media. George A. Romero has done it best with his “Night Of the Living Dead” film series. However, modern zombie-themed literature focuses more on grossing out their audience than seeking to make any political or sociological point. “Patient Zero” goes beyond this and never sinks to simple gross out tactics. It is a remarkable story that will defy the reader to not finish it in one sitting. While not required, I encourage readers to seek out the on-line short story by Jonathan Maberry titled “Countdown”. This short story is an excellent preface to his novel as it explores Joe Ledger’s initial mission with Homeland Security when he first encounters the enemy who later is named Patient Zero.
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