Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Another belated review for a Librarything freebie book, here. This one is tough for me to post, for reasons I imagine will be obvious…

I try not to be too negative when I review books, stories, or other creative work. For one thing, I know what it’s like to have someone slam my work when they clearly haven’t understood it even slightly. I know what it feels like to see someone who doesn’t care either way about me and my work to stand up and dismiss it — online, which makes it harder because any twit can write a nasty review online.

But I also have to be honest, and I didn’t get beyond the first hundred pages or so, and therefore I’m going to try give you my honest opinion of this book.

Terrorists are a big thing now. Since 9/11, terrorists have been a kind of delightfully fun sort of bad-guy to work with. But the terrorist stories of today are the Victorian Anarchist Plot Stories of tomorrow. What’s the last Victorian Anarchist Plot story you read? They’re quaint and weird and dated and don’t make sense to us. They’re puzzling and a little unreadable.

I think we need to be extra careful when marrying trendy to trendy. Terrorists+Zombies feels a bit cheaty, really, to me. Or, rather, it seems a bit like a beer that looks lovely but have little in the way of complex flavours or nuances. The zombie dimension just make the terrorists look, well, more tough. The terrorist dimension just sort of just make the zombies more menacing. There’s only cleverness, here, nothing that adds up to more than the addition of the two. Combining two tropes like this could have provided fertile ground for something new, after all. What if the zombies were swerved out of control globally? What if the governments of several Near Eastern countries had contacted the US government begging for help handling their terrorist-launched zombie plagues? Or what if it was Western scientists researching zombification techniques (to be used on locals in conquered areas) that had gotten the plague  started? What if, instead, zombification had been the result of a Unabomber-type nut?

The characters, too, didn’t shine for me. Maberry’s protagonist feels like a stock figure: the toughest, coldest tough-guy. Okay, sometimes you want a character who is the ____-est something, but how often do you meet someone who is the ____-est at several things at once? Even his weak points feel borrowed from other stories —  a significant other who died mysteriously, for example, and which was one of his only vulnerable points. (If I remember right, that is, since it was a month or so ago I read as much as I could of this book. It didn’t really stick with me very much.)

I get the feeling Maberry is trying to do some of what Donald Maas advises, which is to make characters extreme, push them to extremes, and so on. But in some way, the protagonist of Patient Zero seems more like a robotic figure, a creature from a Hollywood film. This may satisfy many people: the reviews seem mostly very positive, after all. But to me, every character I encountered in that first hundred pages was missing something. Not necesarily a personal weakness, so much as anything that would particularize them in a way a Hollywood movie wouldn’t. Again, it feels like being served one of those megabrew beers, something devoid of any spark of originality or particularity. The dialog, too, felt as it some of it could have been cribbed from a Hollywood movie. This is probably something a lot of people woudl like, but for a reader like me, it’s not a good thing.

Then there’s the issue of verisimilitude, and research. I remember laughing out loud when I read a line about how some terrorist villain character was connected to Al Qaeda and a number of similar organizations. Okay, when Bruce Sterling mentioned Osama Bin Laden by name in his novel Zeitgeist — which was published (not written, published) months before 9/11, that was eerie. That was, wow, holy crap. When an author is namedropping Al Qaeda in 2009, and then gesturing at “other similar organizations”, it smacks of laziness. Google requires so little ingenuity for something like this. Not bothering feels like an insult. Hell, one could even concoct a few groups.

I wish Maberry was a little more subtle sometimes. A wonderful skill one of my teachers drilled us on, ages ago, was conveying something, in a scene, without coming out and saying it. This isn’t just smart writing; it’s what gives a depth of ambiguity, nuance, and power to a scene. Maberry starts one scene between two of his villains with their clothes tangled at his ankles and her waist. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being explicit about such things, of course — nobody is going to suggest sex be taken out of books — but this seems to be done in place of a more subtle rendering of their relationship.

As an SF writer myself, I know that the old saw of “show me, don’t tell me” doesn’t — and cannot — always apply. However, sometimes I felt like Maberry was writing a bit like how Schumann (I think it was) arranged his orchestral during his paranoiac phase: not trusting the first flute to catch his cue, he doubled the melody in the second violins and the harp. Then again, maybe Maberry is correctly expecting many readers not to intuit more deeply what is going on.

I also was annoyed by one more thing: Maberry’s book is full of tiny little chapters. This gives the feeling that the story is moving forward rapidly, even when it isn’t, but to me it was quite distracting. I got the feeling he was using chapter breaks the way many novelists simply use scene breaks. Plenty of chapters were only a page or two long, for no apparent reason. It made me really impatient. But, once again, maybe this is a positive thing in the mass market: I have the same complaint of Dan Brown’s most popular book, and it sold like hotcakes despite its many and obvious flaws.

Some of this may be differences in genre expectations: I don’t read much horror and haven’t read a political thriller in a while, either. In the end, I think this book could be popular (maybe it already is!), and I wish Maberry the best with it.

But I suspect that in a lot of ways, it’s a sort of megabrew book, and I’m a sort of microbrew reader, and so things just didn’t line up quite right for me here.

2 thoughts on “Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

    1. Thanks. I didn’t want to be mean. By the way, I changed the review, slightly, because after looking it over, explicitly writing “Lessons I learned reading this book” seemed (unintentionally) meaner than just saying what I didn’t like about it.

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