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Monday, March 21, 2011

“The King of Plagues” by Jonathan Maberry (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Jonathan Maberry Website
Order “The King of PlaguesHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of “Patient Zero” + “The Dragon Factory
Sign Up for the Free Short Story "Material Witness" HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jonathan Maberry is the multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the Pine Deep Trilogy, the YA novel Rot & Ruin, and the Joe Ledger series which was optioned for TV for ABC. His nonfiction work includes Vampire Universe, The Cryptopedia, and Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead. He also writes for Marvel Comics including The Black Panther, Marvel Zombies Return, DoomWar, and Marvel Universe Vs. The Punisher. Upcoming releases including Dust & Decay (Simon & Schuster) and Dead of Night (St. Martin’s).

PLOT SUMMARY: Saturday 09:11 Hours: A blast rocks a London hospital and thousands are dead or injured… 10:09 Hours: Joe Ledger arrives on scene to investigate. The horror is unlike anything he has ever seen. Compelled by grief and rage, Joe rejoins the DMS and within hours is attacked by a hit-team of assassins and sent on a suicide mission into a viral hot zone during an Ebola outbreak.

Soon Joe Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences begin tearing down the veils of deception to uncover a vast and powerful secret society using weaponized versions of the Ten Plagues of Egypt to destabilize world economies and profit from the resulting chaos. Millions will die unless Joe Ledger meets this powerful new enemy on their own terms as he fights terror with terror...

CLASSIFICATION: If Patient Zero was like James Rollins’ Sigma Force meets 24 meets Resident Evil/28 Days Later; and The Dragon Factory was like James Rollins’ Sigma Force meets 24 meets G.I. Joe meets James Bond; then The King of Plagues is like James Rollins’ Sigma Force meets 24 meets Dan Brown meets Tom Clancy.

FORMAT/INFO: The King of Plagues is 448 pages long divided over a Prologue, five titled Parts, eighty-nine numbered chapters, forty-seven interludes, and an Epilogue. Narration alternates between the first-person POV of the protagonist Joe Ledger and numerous third-person POVs including heroes (Dr. Circe O’Tree, Mr. Church, Rudy Sanchez, First Sgt. Bradley Sims), villains (the King of Plagues, his Conscience, Rafael Santoro) and minor characters. The King of Plagues is the third Joe Ledger novel after Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory. The King of Plagues is mostly self-contained, so reading the first two books is not a requirement, but recommended.

March 29, 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of The Dragon Factory via St. Martin’s Griffin. The UK edition (see below) will be published on April 12, 2011 via Gollancz.

ANALYSIS: The King of Plagues is the third novel to feature Joe Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences, “a new taskforce created to deal with the problems that Homeland Security can’t handle.” The first book, Patient Zero, combined zombie horror with terrorism set to a realistic post-9/11 backdrop. It was a brilliant idea and a total blast to read. Unfortunately, the sequel—with its cartoonish villains and an over-the-top plot featuring Nazis, a master race program, cloning, genetically spliced creatures and so on—was a major disappointment, dampening my excitement for the next book in the series.

Thankfully, The King of Plagues is a lot more like Patient Zero than The Dragon Factory. The villains for instance, are far less cartoonish. Granted, the Seven Kings are a secret society with names like Kings of Fear, Famine, Gold, War, Plagues, Lies and Thieves; they worship a Goddess; and were supposedly responsible for things like the Twin Towers, the flu epidemics and the economic crash of 2008; but as a whole, the villains in The King of Plagues are far more menacing and interesting than those in The Dragon Factory. Of course, it also helps that the novel features a couple of familiar faces from Patient Zero, one of whom becomes the new King of Plagues.

In addition to the better villains, Jonathan Maberry does a better job with Joe Ledger. Joe Ledger is the star of the series, and deservedly so, but in The Dragon Factory it seemed like Ledger was demoted to the second string in favor of bad guys and supporting characters. Fortunately, The King of Plagues features a lot more of Joe Ledger. More of Ledger’s rough charm and endearing sarcasm. More of his vivid descriptions of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat. And more of his fractured psyche—the Modern Man, the Warrior, and the Cop. Trust me, more of Joe Ledger is a good thing.

The biggest improvement with The King of Plagues however, is with the story. While the plot features secret societies, “weaponized versions of the Ten Plagues of Egypt”, Area 51, and a prisoner named Nicodemus who possibly possesses supernatural abilities, the story in The King of Plagues is a lot more plausible than The Dragon Factory. This is because the novel focuses more on the terrorism angle that was largely missing in the last book, including such relevant ideas as Terror Town—a training ground dedicated to counter- and antiterrorism training; think tanks comprised of popular fiction authors to imagine worst-case scenarios; and terrorists using online social networks (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc.) for anonymous communication or stirring up hate crimes.

Besides being more plausible, The King of Plagues also packs an emotional wallop. In fact, between a bombing that captures the overwhelming fear and loss of 9/11, a seven-year-old boy dying from a weaponized version of the Ebola virus, innocent people forced to commit heinous acts in order to save their families, and Joe Ledger still grieving from the recent loss of a loved one, The King of Plagues features some of the series’ most heart-rending moments yet. Moments punctuated by Jonathan Maberry’s skillful writing:

For one crystalline moment the entire scene was dead silent, as if we were all frozen into a photograph from a book on war. This could have been Somalia or Beirut or Baghdad or any of the other places on our troubled earth where hatred takes the form of lethal rage. We, the victors, stood amid gunsmoke and the pink haze of blood that had been turned to mist, amazed that we were alive, doubting both our salvation and our right to have survived while others—perhaps more innocent and deserving than ourselves—lay dead or dying.

Despite the novel’s many improvements over The Dragon Factory, The King of Plagues still suffers from some of the same problems as its predecessor. Like taking too much time to establish the vast reach and power of the Seven Kings, which could have been summarized in a much more concise manner; weak subplots involving the villains that were either too easy to anticipate or too melodramatic; and shallow supporting characters.

CONCLUSION: After finishing The Dragon Factory, I was disappointed by the far-fetched territory the series had ventured into and hoped that The King of Plagues would not follow suit. To my relief, Jonathan Maberry’s The King of Plagues utilizes the same successful formula that made Patient Zero so much fun to read. A formula that made The King of Plagues nearly as thrilling and page-turning as the awesome Patient Zero. A formula that should be used for all future installments in the Joe Ledger series...

6 comments:

Tristan said...

Ugh...

I read the first two books in the series, and to say that corporate super criminals and fanatical Arab super zombies are more believable that crazed Nazi scientists who conduct monstrous racist experiments on society and wrap themselves in ceremony and pseudo-myth is kind of funny. The POV situation was unbalanced I agree. But the rest is just empty criticism based on some weird set of personal criteria that only you know about. It is very confusing, something that plagues many of the reviews of present day sci-fi and urban fantasy books on this site.

Robert said...

I can see that you're criticizing my review, but I believe I'm quite clear on what I liked and disliked about each Ledger novel, and the reasons why. So in a way, you're contradicting yourself because your criticism of my criticism is itself empty...

I'm also confused about what you actually thought of the books. Are you a fan? Did you not like them?

Tristan said...

I enjoyed both books, Patient Zero a little more because the POVs were better. But I'm saying that the series has internal consistency, with larger than life archetypes of current or historical enemies of society creating or becoming horrors that have at least some basis in real science. To say that one is more plausible than the other without any criteria mentioned is confusing. Arguing characterization is one thing, but just saying "over the top" is just really broad and doesn't really say anything at all.
Like I said, this is a something that has bugged me about reviews of sci-fi and urban fantasy set in the present day or near future, it was not just this review or series. I just read Dragon Factory and I am looking forward to the King of Plagues so I thought I would comment.

Robert said...

Thanks for clarifying your statements Tristan. If you enjoyed, the first two books, then I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy "The King of Plagues".

As far as the broadness you mention about reviews for sf/fantasy, I can't speak for everyone, but there are many times I am intentionally broad, because I don't want to reveal any spoilers. Take for instance my review of "The Dragon Factory". When I said 'over-the-top', I was referring to a specific character, but I didn't want to provide details because I want readers to discover things on their own. It's a fine line I have to walk. I want to provide enough information so readers can understand what a book is about and its strengths & weakness, but not too much to spoil anything for the reader. Nevertheless, I understand where you are coming from...

I hope you enjoy "The King of Plagues"!

pirish said...

I thought your review was dead on with my own opinion of the first two novels. Patient Zero was terrific and after reading it was recommending to friends. Dragon Factory seemed too far-fetched, for my taste, and sloopy in editing.

Still a fan, though, and am looking forward to the third installment.

Great Job Robert

Robert said...

Thanks Pirish! I hope you like the third book better...

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