To label Patient Zero a mere zombie-novel is to do it a terrible injustice. Multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jonathan Maberry deftly weaves 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/technothriller.
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 is a just comparison, Maberry’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 not confined to merely one 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 mere 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; their focus is on science and how it is applied to threats of bio-terrorism.
Ledger’s recruiter is a DMS leader known only as Mr. Church, a a close-to-the-vest type who 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. Because of Ledger’s success on the Baltimore PD, along with his own Army Ranger and martial-arts background, he is a perfect candidate to captain a team put together by the DMS. Ledger’s team includes former military, CIA, and even front-line assassins. His introduction to the team involves a test in which Ledger is forced to beat his men into submission within an extremely short time-frame. Joe Ledger doesn’t disappoint, but now he must engage and lead the men he just brutalized into fighting for him.
The mission of Ledger’s team is something straight out of science fiction, their enemy unlike anything they have ever seen before. A deadly bioweapon known as the Seif al Din (Sword of the Faithful) pathogen has been created by 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 effectively turns that person 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, transforming 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 PD involving a warehouse raid of alleged terrorists. Taking out this team of terrorists, Ledger comes up against a fierce and resilient opponent whom he assumes is drug-addicted. Ledger puts this extremely aggressive enemy down, only to find out from Mr. Church that his opponent didn’t stay down. This individual, labeled Patient Zero, reanimated and attacked several members of the hospital staff where he was taken. This hushed-up incident leads to the DMS being called in to contain the situation by razing the entire hospital and its inhabitants.
A terrorist known as El Mujahid is behind the threat. A fanatic in the vein of Osama Bin Laden, his name literally translates to “the fighter of the way of Allah.” As Ledger’s team and the rest of the DMS face off against these pathogen-infected beings, or “walkers”, they uncover a conspiracy that may not only 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. After a few skirmishes go badly, it becomes evident to Ledger and Church that there is a leak within DMS itself - someone on the inside must be working with the terrorists to ensure that their plan is carried out to the end. Is it simple greed or just religious-based motives that drive those involved with the terrorists?
Jonathan Maberry enters territory that might once have been 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 reader’s head, Maberry gives just enough scientific premise to keep the reader informed without derailing the fast-paced narrative. At their best, zombie stories are used as symbolic social commentary on everything from political ideologies to the over-saturation of media. George A. Romero did it best with his Night Of the Living Dead films. Modern zombie-themed literature focuses more on grossing out the audience than seeking to make any political or sociological point. Patient Zero: A Joe Ledger Novel goes beyond this, never sinking to simple gore tactics. It is a remarkable story that defies the reader not to finish it in one sitting. While not required, I encourage readers to seek out the online short story by Jonathan Maberry titled “Countdown”, an excellent preface to his novel exploring Joe Ledger’s initial mission with Homeland Security when he first encounters the enemy who later is named as Patient Zero.