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Review of Patient Zero

Patient Zero
By Jonathan Maberry
St. Martin’s Press, 2009

Unknown to rarefied cognoscenti and unfelt by the general reading public, a quiet explosion took place in the book world in 2007. That explosion was a novel by Max Brooks called World War Z, the “oral history” of mankind’s war against a worldwide zombie infestation. Even now, a mere two years after its publication, World War Zis a mighty, unstoppable underground classic, and it’s something else in addition to that, something very important: it’s damn fantastic, one of the most hypnotically addictive and well-crafted novels (zombie or otherwise) you’ll ever read.

Such a phenomenon usually necessitates two things: first, that the book in question be made into an entirely unsatisfactory movie starring Nicholas Cage, and second, that some cocky son of a gun somewhere out there on the literary horizon try to top the book. The first of these is drearily inevitable (“Zombies. I hate zombies”); the second is flat-out impossible but at least holds out the chance that somebody will write something entertaining in the attempt.

Jonathan Maberry is such a somebody, and his new novel Patient Zero is such a book. It’s narrated by Baltimore detective Joe Ledger, a trained killer (he’s in his early thirties, so when the time comes it’ll be Emile Hirsch, not Mr. Cage) who comes to the attention of the Department of Military Science, which is spearheading the fight against a terrorist weapon that turns innocent – and sometimes not so innocent – people into zombies. Not literal back-from-the-dead zombies (everybody in the book matter-of-factly agrees that once you’re dead, you’re dead), but poor vessels infected with a super-virus that gives them an uncanny resemblance to “The Night of the Living Dead”:

“These things [the infected] are designed to be vectors. The disease simply shuts off the areas damaged by your bullets. Don’t look at me like that; I know how weird this sounds, but someone cooked up something that nearly kills its victims but at the same time prevents them from dying as we’ve previously understood death. Plus, they added a little of this and a little of that so that the host body – the walker – aggressively spreads the pathogen. It’s marvelous but it’s bizarre, because the disease is constantly trying to kill the host while working like a bastard to keep parts of it alive.”

Maberry is chosen not only for his fighting skills but for his familiarity with death, and with the borderline states between life and death. His initiation into the secretive ranks of the DMS takes the form of an encounter with an infected “walker” in a locked interrogation room:

I saw terror and hopelessness there [in the zombie’s eyes]. I saw death.

But here’s the thing you see, I’d seen those things before. I may not have been on any of the world’s battlefields, but [DMS supervisor] Church was right when he’d said that I’ve seen the face of terror. It went a lot deeper than that, though. It isn’t just terror that I understood … I knew the face of death. I’d been bedside when cervical cancer took my mom. I was the last thing she saw before she slipped into the big black nothing, and I saw the light and life go out of her; I saw her eyes change from living eyes to those of a dead person. You can never forget that; the image is burned onto the front of your brain. I was also the one who’d found [ex-girlfriend] Helen after she’d swallowed half a bottle of drain cleaner. She’d left a good bye message on my voice mail and was already gone when I kicked in the door. I saw her dead eyes , too.

So I’d looked into dead eyes before, I know what I saw there. I saw death and terror and hopelessness. Not my mom’s, not Helen’s, not the criminals I’ve killed – no, the deadness I see is my own, reflected in eyes that have nothing of their own to show. You can’t fake that dead look.

You can’t fake this kind of authorly enthusiasm, either. Patient Zero is full of sharp dialogue, rapid-fire action, fascinating (and, the author somewhat disturbingly promises us, entirely fact-based) patho-science, and a wide array of deftly drawn characters. It may not be World War Z, but it’s an unqualified success in its own right. The fact that it’s first in a projected series is just icing on the cake. I’m tempted to end by urging you to “run, don’t awkwardly shuffle” to buy a copy, but I’m better than that.

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