Expectations are a tricky thing to manage when you’re writing series fiction. Over the years I’ve had a number of writers tell me that if you’re not careful books in series fiction can be reduced down to a number of expected actions, instead of a real story with impact and meaning.Then though you have authors like Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Jim Butcher who have been writing the same series character for years and virtually every book in these series have been highly entertaining and developed their protagonists in interesting ways. Writer Jonathan Maberry is only three books into his Joe Ledger series, but so far each one is an argument to include his name among those authors.
I just finished “The King of Plagues” Maberry’s third novel starring soldier turned Baltimore Detective, turned agent in a clandestine war on terror, Joe Ledger. Violence is a part of Ledger’s life, but he’s never been the unflappable and unstoppable killing machine, and that’s part of the reason why he’s such a fascinating character. He’s constantly paying a toll for what he does and the fact that he stands up and continues to do it is what makes him heroic. In “The King of Plagues” Joe is recovering from the biggest toll he’s paid yet. I try to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible, so I won’t say what Joe has lost, but when “The King of Plagues” begins that loss has taken him out of the action. He’s actually in London with the one friend he’s allowed to stick with him in his travels, a highly trained military dog named Ghost, whose a fascinating character in his own right.
Joe isn’t kept out of the action for too long though. In the opening pages of “The King of Plagues” a hospital in London is destroyed and it’s that attack that has Joe, and his colleagues in the clandestine anti-terrorist agency, the Department of Military Sciences hunting their most elusive adversaries yet, a shadowy group known as the Seven Kings. One of their number has faced Joe and the DMS before, and he has a new plan that if it succeeds will allow him to get revenge on his enemies and turn the world upside down.
Helping Joe hunt for the Seven Kings are the usual collection of fascinating DMS personal that I’ve grown to love over the last few books like Top Sims, and “Bunny” Rabbit. Plus you get even more insights into the life of Joe’s boss, the enigmatic Mister Church. What you learn deepens the character and makes him all the more fascinating.
Maberry also includes some new DMS characters in this volume and I hope they’ll become regulars. Ledger’s Echo Team gets several new recruits like the fascinating and non-loquacious sniper John Smith. Plus readers finally get to meet another high level member of the DMS command staff whose existence had been hinted at in other books, Aunt Sallie. She turns out to be a fun, memorable and very distinct character.
We of course get some interesting non DMS staff as well. Two military academics, Hugo Vox and his associate Circe O’Tree play significant roles in “The King of Plagues.” At first I wasn’t sure about these characters taking some time from some of my other favorites, but when Maberry finally lets you see how significant they are to the story you come to appreciate them. Plus there are the members of the Seven Kings whose ranks include the one returning villain. They are all fascinating characters and good examples of villains you love to hate.
The villains of “The King of Plagues” get their comeuppance in several intense and exciting action scenes including the finale, which takes place in a pretty memorable set piece. To say any more though would spoil some of the books more fun reveals.
Great characters and great action have been a part of the other Joe Ledger novels as well, but “The King of Plagues” is quite different in some ways than the other entries in the series. It might prove jarring to some fans, but if you judge the book on it’s own merits it works. Plus Maberry deserves praise for trying some different things, but still maintaining what’s great about the series.
How is “The King of Plagues” different? Probably the biggest area is in the world of the fantastic and horror. In the past two Ledger books, Joe and the DMS have come face to face with some pretty strange things, like a virus that turns people into zombie like monstrosities and things genetically engineered to resemble monsters from myths and lore. In “The King of Plagues” Maberry goes in a different direction. His shadowy monsters in the novel are secret societies. The author mines lots of established conspiracy theories and plunges the reader into a world where evil men blend truth and lies to create fearsome legends.
However, having said that, “The King of Plagues,” does include one cryptic scene involving otherworldly horror. It’s another scene that I don’t want to spoil, but the way it played out suggests Maberry is going to follow it up soon. It also suggests that Joe Ledger and Echo Team have no idea of the evil they’re up against. I for one can’t wait to see this plot thread developed in later books.
“The King of Plagues” is also different in that it’s a little quieter than the other books. It’s still full of amazing and intense action sequences, and yes the fate of the world is still on the line. The scope and scale of these conflicts is toned down a little bit though compared to some of the other books. Admittedly I found myself missing some of that hugeness, but Maberry makes up for it in character development. Plus I give the guy credit for once again giving us something different. The character development deepens the series. In some cases an author is best served by giving his readers what they need instead of what they want and we needed a book like this.
So to sum up, “The King of Plagues” is a different but another great entry into a book series that’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. I eagerly look forward to reading the next Joe Ledger novel, “Assassins’ Code,” which is out in less than a week.