Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Extinction Machine

Every since I was pleasantly surprised by Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry, I've been an eager follower of Maberry's Joe Ledger books. Patient Zero looked like it was just going to be a cross between a zombie novel and a tough-guy-adventure novel -- which it is, except that the quality of the writing, in my opinion, elevated it above both of those genres. I grabbed The Dragon Factory and The King of Plagues as soon as I could, and I enjoyed them just as much.

Then Joe Ledger fell off my radar for a while, and the next time I checked, I saw that I'd let two books slip by: Assassin's Code and Extinction Machine. The most recent book, Extinction Machine, was easiest for me to get my hands on quickly (this isn't a series that requires a deep study of the prior volumes in order to appreciate the later work) and I recently finished it.

I was a bit underwhelmed. The first three books stick closely to the same formula: take a James-Bond-style supervillain, arm him with a science-fictionish global threat, start a doomsday countdown, and toss Joe Ledger in the middle. Those three books introduced enough variations on that basic theme so that it didn't seem like the same old plot over and over. But Extinction Machine really doesn't add any interesting elements to the formula. I love a good conspiracy story, and I like how Maberry dressed up the old Majestic-12 stuff, but the supervillains this were fairly bland, and Joe Ledger just didn't seem to get in as much trouble as usual. He's nearly a supporting character in this book; he gets shot at a few times, but these scenes are drowned out by a mess of other activity. We get some flashbacks to earlier events, which are largely unnecessary, since they simply show us information that we had already learned from other sources. We get a series of scenes that are just extended phone interviews, used to dump a massive (and possibly overextensive) amount of exposition onto the reader. We follow around an opposition character who, in the end, could have probably been removed entirely from the book without much difficulty or impact.

In short, it's a Joe Ledger novel without enough Joe Ledger in it, and his presence is replaced by characters who aren't nearly as interesting, or by pages of conspiracy-theory trivia that slow down the action and contribute very little to the overall plot. I feel that Maberry spent a little too much time trying to assemble a fictional justification for this book's doomsday threat, and felt compelled to give us all of his research notes, whether we wanted to read them or not.

If there are more Joe Ledger novels, I hope that Maberry is able to regain his focus on telling a story about Joe, rather than trying to build up a complex cast of allies and antagonists. The Lester Dent Plot (essentially, get the hero in trouble on page one and keep dumping on more trouble until the big finish) is hard to improve on for straight-up pulp action, and watering it down isn't a recipe for success.