Hard to fathom, really, that around six months ago Joe Ledger was just a Baltimore cop, before he was recruited into the Department of Military Sciences (the D.M.S.), the preeminent front line agency dedicated to averting the most dire of global threats. In six months Joe Ledger had waged war against zombies and lab-created mythological monsters and a gallery of nasty eeeevil masterminds. He and his Echo Team have saved the world a grip of times, but at staggering costs. Joe's last time out in the trenches proved to be too much to bear. And he left the D.M.S.
THE KING OF PLAGUES is the third outing in the Joe Ledger series (after PATIENT ZERO and THE DRAGON FACTORY). It opens with the D.M.S.'s enigmatic leader, Mr. Church, abruptly terminating Joe Ledger's walkabout or bereavement leave or pity party or whatever you want to call it. Ledger is tapped to investigate the shocking obliteration of a venerable London hospital, and the death toll mounting in the thousands. And this is only the opening salvo. Joe and the D.M.S. suspect that this is only the first leg in a series of nightmarish assaults. Having mostly existed in rumor and urban legend, having fomented fear and paranoia thru insidious management of the social media (not to mention the application of vile threats and abductions), the Seven Kings have finally stepped out of the shadows and are about to launch their most ambitious act of aggression: the bringing about of the biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt. Things are about to get all Old Testament-y. And as Joe and his colleagues find, the reach of the Seven Kings is all-encompassing. Their influence extends even into the heart of the D.M.S. itself. Mr. Church, learning this, is really grinding down on his vanilla wafers now. And because author Jonathan Maberry likes to top himself, he throws in a second secret society (although the Bonesmen's impact is pretty negligible).
This is another stay-up-late-lie-to-your-boss-call-in-sick-the-next-morning sort of read; and I liked it almost as much as PATIENT ZERO. THE KING OF PLAGUES is edgy and feverishly paced and finds our heroes really up against it. The Seven Kings are devilish villains, and they seem to be always a few steps ahead of our guys. Since the death of a core character in THE DRAGON FACTORY (which, by the way, has made Ledger a more melancholy cat), I've gotten pretty concerned about the survival of my favorite characters. THE KING OF PLAGUES also features the return of two twisty old foes, Sebastian Gault and Toys, and they are predictably up to no good. Factor in two strikingly disturbing cats in the shapes of a sadistic Spaniard and this freaky inmate named Nicodemus, and the Sinister-o-Meter just darted to the red.
Lots of Joe Ledger frantically scrambling from one emergency to the next, and maybe my favorite sequence is Echo Team's savage firefight at a Starbucks. And, as per norm with this series, Maberry writes chapters presenting the big bads' perspectives, giving us a well-rounded, fleshed out narrative. The Echo Team is back in action, and it's nice to see familiar faces like Top and Bunny, and the new team members seem really promising, even though the laconic sniper guy smacks of the cliché.
Things get a wee bit surreal in the final act as Joe and the D.M.S. converge on a cruise ship hosting a world benefit concert and therefore deemed a prime target for an all-out terrorist attack from the Seven Kings. Maberry works in famous performers such as Pink, Taylor Swift, Avril Lavigne, and a host of others. One of the closing passages features Bono chatting Joe Ledger up. Weird, but really cool. And, of course, the cruise ship is attacked, becomes the stage for the climactic big fighty fight. At the end of the day, chalk up another apocalypse averted, Echo Team taking names and kicking beaucoup booty, one disclosure regarding Mr. Church, and that freaky inmate Nicodemus raising the hair on the back of your neck and possibly paving the way for the fourth Joe Ledger thriller (ASSASSIN'S CODE, due out in 2012 and supposed to feature genetically-engineered vampire assassins).
How awesome is Joe's faithful dog, Ghost? (Answer: pretty damn awesome).