In Patient Zero, Jonathan Maberry has found a crossover so obvious, and so perfect, it is astounding it hasn’t already been done to death: the zombie apocalypse techno-thriller. Take one part pulpy grocery-store bestseller about the world’s most high-tech spies facing off against the world’s most desperate terrorists. Add an equal amount of classic zombie apocalypse scenario. Stir well, garnish with a Bond-worthy supervillain, and voilà! Patient Zero.
I’ll admit, techno-thrillers aren’t my area of expertise. I’ve read a Clancy novel (about twenty years ago, mind you) and a few of Crichton’s page turners, but that’s about it. Still, in Joe Ledger, a former soldier turned ace cop turned top-notch special agent, I’d wager that Maberry has created a character as badass as anything any classic of that genre has to offer. Then he puts the man in action sequence after action sequence, full of shootouts, face-munching zombie action and tense, life-or-death situations. Seriously, if you like action, this book delivers. And delivers. And delivers some more, almost—but not quite—to the point of oversaturation.
Ledger gets embroiled in a terrorist plot to release a bioweapon when he participates in a raid on a safe house and shoots a man. A day or so later, he meets with a super secret spook agency who has the man he killed in custody, only he’s not so dead any more… Soon, Ledger’s signed on to chase down the terrorists. Meanwhile, a brilliant terrorist super scientist and her evil Osama Bin Laden-on-steroids husband and their creepy, supervillain-esque financial backer are busy cooking up the ultimate bioweapon: a disease that turns people into zombies, naturally.
The action switches between Ledger’s investigations and raids and the various terrorist machinations, slowly unfolding into a compelling story with a decent number of twists and surprises. The surprises may be a bit obvious if you’re good at spotting that sort of thing, but it doesn’t really subtract from the fun. The climax is suitably epic, involving a lot of VIPs, a big public event and an attempt at a large-scale release of the pathogen.
It’s not a terribly deep book, but neither is it just disposable pulp. Yes, it’s arguably formulaic, but what a formula! Just as important as that formula is the lead character, Joe Ledger. Maberry keeps him a hell of a lot more relatable, and likeable, than someone like torture-happy Jack Bauer, without compromising his badass credentials at any point. As a result, he has a winner here, a tough but believable protagonist who’s easy to root for. That’s not a bad description of the book itself; it’s a damn fun read that’s easy to root for. The zombie lit genre is filled with middling crap and outright garbage, so when something this entertaining and well-executed comes along, you don’t scold it for not being the Great American Novel; you embrace it for being the wonderful, ripping yarn that it is.