Patient Zero – a review

December 25, 2009

Caution: This review contains the occasional spoiler. Read at your own risk, if you haven’t read the book yet.

Patient Zero is a zombie novel by Jonathan Maberry, best known to me as the author of the book Zombie CSU. It’s the story of Joe Ledger, a police detective that gets drafted into an ultra-secret government agency and lands in all sorts of sticky situations involving terrorists and the living dead.

After reading (and reviewing) Zombie CSU, I was left wondering about Maberry’s skills as a fiction writer. Zombie CSU was loaded with factual information, which occasionally even made it a bit heavy to read, and I wondered whether this style had crept into Patient Zero as well. I’m happy to say that my fears were far from the truth, as this book is a real page-turner. Clocking in at 421 pages, I read the first 260 in pretty much one sitting and then finished the book the next day.

There’s a lot of stuff to recommend about Patient Zero. I’ll start with realism. Realism, or at least a solid internal logic is very important to me in a book, and Patient Zero pretty much satisfied me in this regard. The scenario in all its wonderful horror is eerily believable. Maberry’s knowledge and contacts in the worlds of law enforcement, science, intelligence and military, very apparent in Zombie CSU, are put to very good use here. Everything seems solid, and this really helps the reader immerse him-/herself in the book. Such amounts of knowledge can sometimes drag a novel down, as a writer may be tempted to cram everything he knows into the book. Maberry occasionally dances on the outskirts of this when describing martial arts, equipment and the science behind it all, but doesn’t venture in deep enough for it to get tedious. It’s difficult to pull off, and I salute him for doing it as well as he has. There are a few misses (such as a character speaking “Iranian”, a language that doesn’t exist), but all in all it’s very plausible.

The plot is interesting, and as I already mentioned, believable. The book’s been divided into small chapters, with parallel story lines running throughout. Some people don’t like this movie-like approach with its frequent cuts, but I enjoy it. Maberry is a very good writer and up to date on current events, and there are pop culture references and such to keep the reader well entertained. The language the writer and the characters use is colourful and well written. The underlying tones of the book remain something of a mystery to me. There are lines in the book that throw vicious jabs at post-9/11 America. Then again, the main character’s patriotism and ends-justifying-means -authoritarian views threw me off a fair bit, especially combined with the stereotypical fanatical Islamic terrorists in the book. I would like to think that it’s basically just fiction, as I don’t really care much for pushing political agendas under the guise of something else.

There is suspense in the book, but it’s never really a horror story as much as it is a techno thriller. A fairly accurate description of how Patient Zero reads, is “Crichton or Clancy with zombies.” This definition suits me just fine, although there’s one thing that should’ve been left to Clancy. More on this later.

Action is plentiful, and the realism shows here as well. The action scenes are well thought out and very believable. Maberry’s love – and experience, I believe – of martial arts shines through, and having done years of martial arts myself, I certainly appreciated the realistic approach to combat techniques. No flying super spinning kicks here, it’s all throat punching and joint breaking. It’s brutal, it’s effective and paints violence like it should be: as ugly and vicious.

One of my main gripes about Zombie CSU was its too light treatment of the effects of psychological stress caused by a zombie scenario. Patient Zero addresses this as well, factoring in smoothly the mental strain that gunning down seemingly innocent people puts on a shooter. Psychology is an often visited theme in the book overall, with the main character regularly visiting his psychiatrist, who actually becomes one of the more important characters in the book too.

There’s one thing I haven’t yet commented on, and that is the characters. No book is without its flaws, and the ones that Patient Zero has crop up here. I liked most of the characters. They were well enough written, fairly well rounded and most didn’t feel like paper cut-outs, even if they were the (stereo)typical cast you’d expect to find in a story like this. The bad guys had a solid logic and a working moral,  and the good guys had their occasional flaws too. Except for Joe Ledger, the main character.

For me, the sheer heroism of Ledger, the book’s lead, was a turn-off. While it wasn’t even close to putting me off this book, it did get a tad annoying towards the end. In the beginning of the book, Joe Ledger is painted as a pretty ordinary cop, although very skillful in what he does. He often remarks how he’s getting into things that are way over his head and the like, there are flaws to him such as self-control and aggression issues and the reader ends up sympathizing with Joe quite a lot. However, as the book progresses, Joe turns out to be a bit too good at everything he does. He beats the living daylights out of military special forces guys, terrorists and zombies, out-thinks most intelligence agencies and military strategists, literally saves the world and even picks up a gorgeous woman while doing all of this. For me the low point of the book was when he all but wrecks the terrorists’ plan that’s been built up in the previous 400 pages, because he gets a funny feeling about a random agent smiling. That reeked of deus ex machina and Tom Clancy to me.

Sure, there are guys in films and books that do stuff like this. Indiana Jones, Jack Bauer in 24, John McClane in the Die Hard movies, James Bond and so on. What separates them from Joe Ledger, however, is that they occasionally fail. Jack Bauer gets beaten to a pulp every once in a while, as does the new Bond. Indiana Jones basically survives on luck, and John McClane’s entire character is based on the idea that even if he’s all but destroyed, he still comes out on top by virtue of sheer grit. Ledger as a character lacks this side altogether. There’s never really the feeling that the guy might fail at something, and it’s not because of luck or grit, but simply because he is so good at everything. He never misses a shot, never fails a punch, kick or throw and is only mentally thrown off for split seconds in even the most dire situations. The character flaws mentioned are never brought into play, and as such fail to have an impact. The heroism of Ledger also sadly causes him to draw a lot of attention and screen time away from a bunch of other, more interesting characters. Some of Ledger’s insights and skills could’ve been distributed amongst other characters, to flesh them out a bit and make them feel more important and less like extras.

Joe Ledger ends up a strange character. He’s well written and a nice guy. He’s good at delivering wise-ass lines and I found myself  liking him. Then again, it’s hard to feel for and relate to him on account of him being so perfect in everything he does. I hope that this changes in later Joe Ledger novels! If it doesn’t, Mr. Ledger faces the risk of becoming a major Mary Sue.

Also, the end of the book was a bit of a letdown. After brilliant planning and countless twists and turns, the terrorists pretty much blow it by being petty and emotional. Combine this with the sheer heroism of the good guys, and you have a fairly unsurprising and an unnecessarily happy ending.

Overall verdict: In spite of my last bits of critique, Patient Zero is a nice book. I’d say it’s easily the best piece of zombie fiction since World War Z that I’ve read, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel. I’d happily recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for an action-packed, fast read. Hunker down, grab a pack of snacks and dig in.


  1. A good, honest review, Mikko. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and I too look forward to Joe’s next adventure in 2010.


  2. I finished “Zombie CSU” by the same author last week. I enjoyed a lot of that book but felt that it could have been trimmed down a bit.

    I still enjoyed Zombie CSU however. Enough to pick up a copy of Patient Zero after reading your verdict (and skipping your spoilers…) actually.


    • It’s good to hear that my review was of some use. Did you read the one I posted on Zombie CSU?


      • It was your review of Zombie CSU that brought the book to my attention actually.

        I think that the interest in zombies in media is peaking (or perhaps has peaked already) at the moment. As a result there are so many zombie themed books around that I find it hard to pick one out from the crowd.

        I read your Z:CSU review and that encouraged me to pick it up. I am looking forward to getting Patient Zero soon.


  3. It really does seem that zombies are pretty much everywhere. As you mentioned, there’s a huge variety around, and that probably means that there’s a ton of poor quality stuff to be sifted through to get to the real gems.

    I’ll be sure to review the zombie books I read, to make other people’s lifes a bit easier.


  4. […] idea is mainly ripped off from Patient Zero, a cheesy book that I read recently (reviewed here on Dawn of the Lead).  That book was in my opinion pretty trashy, although I enjoyed the non-fiction Zombie CSU […]


  5. […] stuff, but I guess I should if it’s the same quality as R&R. Having read Maberry’s Patient Zero and Dead of Night (review forthcoming soonish), I didn’t quite know what to expect. His main […]


  6. […] starting big, as the first interviewee is none other than Jonathan Maberry, author of Zombie CSU, Patient Zero, Rot & Ruin and Dead of Night. Click the first three titles for their respective reviews, the […]


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