Article published on July 17, 2011.
This reviewer could never quite work out whether the King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry was taking itself seriously or not: it’s either a deadly serious techno-thriller reworking the same ground well-trodden by Tom Clancy et alor it’s a ludicrous, tongue-in-cheek actioner nodding towards Dan Brown.
Possibly the author wasn’t sure either, as the novel tries to be both and the tone is often uneasy. A fine example of this would be the action sequences that top and tail the book. The first – the bombing of a London hospital – is chilling in its plausibility. Maberry clearly understands the logistics of a terrorist bombing: walls bulge, then burst as the explosions hit from within, debris and dust rains into the crowd and putrid, oily smoke clouds the air with only charred mounds of brick left as final totems to the destruction.
In contrast, the shoot-out finale aboard a luxury liner wouldn’t have looked out of place in an 80’s Schwarzenegger film: the baddies swarm all over the ship, only to be torn apart seconds later by special forces flying in on hang-gliders. Even though our POV hero still manages to protest to the reader that gun-fights don’t play out like in films, when out-numbered and out-gunned in a shoot-out in a Starbucks, his elite special forces buddies arrive out of nowhere to save the day. In fact Maberry is fond of his deus ex machina with Special forces, previously unseen snipers and a preternaturally trained attack dog often intervening at the nick of time to resolve a gun being pointed at a good guy.
The plot is interesting, although long-winded in its execution and its mysteries not so much resolved by our heroe’s ingenuity as the conscience pangs of some of the baddies. It is to Maberry’s credit however, that he takes one of this reviewer’s most hated clichés – the evil, shadowy, secret organisation that has “people everywhere” in every military, government and financial institution, unlimited resources, advanced weaponry, mindlessly devoted soldiers and which has existed since time began – and presents a reasonably satisfying explanation of its how sleeper agents could have penetrated several military organisations.
Defining the organisation – The Seven Kings (of which the titular King of Plagues is a member) – presents another clash. The Kings (one of who may or may not be Osama Bin Laden) claims credit for all of history’s atrocities: 9/11 (although the bombing of a hospital at the beginning of the book achieves a higher casualty rate, which is repeatedly referenced throughout the book like some kind of grisly new high score), the London bus bombings and even the death of Princess Diana. Possibly this is gristle to the grind for all action thriller writers now, but by referencing real tragedies the author seems to be trying to earn some brutal verisimilitude. It seems then almost offensive to dismiss these tragedies as created as a mechanism of profit for the Seven Kings with their war against the Harvard inner cycle, their sadistic knife-wielding Spanish assassin, and their never fully explored link to a prisoner who apparently has supernatural powers and escapes unseen and undetected from solitary confinement.
The dialogue is best when it sticks to exposition, and the banter between the DMS Delta-force-style soldiers is often forced, and sometimes down-right ludicrous, with one of the most excruciating lines this reviewer has ever read – when a British officer confides in her friend – “I think I’ve bloody well fallen in love.”
In fact, that line should tell the reader this is a book written by an American who is clutching his Bumper-Book-Of-What-Americans-Think-The-British-Are-Like close to hand. The English are all Julians, Martins and Sebastians, the Scots are “fierce”, and the Irish character offers the incredible Circe O’Tree as her name. Fans of ludicrous monikers will also enjoy the DMS strike team comprising of Bunny, Top Simms and Dee Dee Williams.
Our lead hero Joe Ledger is likable enough, although like the book he wants to have it all ways. Joe is by turns a modern man, a cop and a warrior, with an obligatory troubled past, and deadly instincts. He’s an unflinching killing machine, but still able to make a fool of himself around a beautiful woman (woman in this book generally come in two types: beautiful or very beautiful), vengeful but not vindictive. In fact, although the book wants to paint him as a new Jack Bauer (“Joe Ledger: fighting terror with terror” as the front cover claims) we never witness him do anything that isn’t heroic. There is one reference to him “making a witness talk” although the book here shies away from any description of his means of torture, which is odd given the limb-exploding mayhem of the fight scenes.
The author does finally get under the cliches of his character in a genuinely moving scene at the conclusion of the book when Joe ruminates on his detachment from ordinary people while watching the New Year’s celebrations from a high skyscraper in New York, and realises this is his price for being a protector, and indeed there are many flourishes of effective prose such as the description of a man whose family has been threatened having his thoughts “tear through the chambers of [his] mind and overturn all the furniture and smash every window”. But appropriately enough given the duality of the book, there are clunky lines, a chapter bizarrely ending on a description of someone eating a biscuit, and the climatic shoot-out feels rushed: as if the writer was in a hurry to finish before the reader can consider the plot-holes in the final resolution (for anyone who has read the book – how exactly did any of the thousands of bullets and explosives filling the air in the final scene not burst one of the balloons?)
The best recommendation this reviewer can give is to take the book as a tongue-in-cheek thriller. It may not be exactly what Maberry set out to write, but it does then succeed in presenting an enjoyable array of bad-ass goodies and villains who you itch to see get their comeuppance, sparring across several genuinely exciting and chaotic set-pieces.
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