(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to. No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book. I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game. Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.
(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.
(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)
NOTE: Before I get into this, I’m going to warn everyone now: I’m going to spoil a plot point. I have to in order actually review it. So, if you haven’t read this book originally published seven years, get the fuck out now. Only warning.
Fuck, I struggled getting to this review. Not the book itself, which I’ve read before, but writing the review, because I knew…well, it wasn’t going to be terrible, but, for me, The Dragon Factory is the weakest link in the Joe Ledger chain. Also, I like to think Jonathan’s a friend, so me nitpicking feels fucked up. Yeah, yeah, I know–“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” but that logic falls apart immediately if you set yourself to always be bluntly (not necessarily brutally, but that can happen) honest. And I try to be honest as much as I possibly fucking can. Life’s too short, otherwise.
In any event, here are the deets on The Dragon Factory: This is the second novel in the Joe Ledger series, a run of stories told about former Baltimore PD detective Joe Ledger, who gets recruited by the shadowy Mr. Church–sometimes called Deacon, or the Sexton, or Mr. Bishop–to join the Department of Military Sciences, a Men-in-Black-style government agency that only comes in when everything’s hit the fan. He leads his Echo Team into battle, leaving a trail of bodies trying to uncover and stop this plot or that plot. The first novel, Patient Zero, dealt with zombies.
The Dragon Factory takes place a few months after the events of the first book and we find Ledger & Co.–Church, Joe’s psychiatrist Rudy, his colleague and girlfriend Major Grace Courtland, Dr. Hu, Bug, and a handful of others–dealing with the endgame of a modern times Final Solution, where white supremacists find a way to weaponize various genetic disorders to eliminate a number of ethnic groups.
Sounds kinda fucked up, right? Also, oddly prescient in these Trump Presidency times, but whatever. Maberry is a fun pulp writer in the best tradition, but he doesn’t pull his throw when shooting for the moon.
Everything that was good about Patient Zero is on full display here–snappy, writing, that, to quote myself, “a propulsive, yank-you-forward style, the chapters and paragraphs short and punchy, producing a staccato rhythm that can pull you in like a really good drum solo”; the book is fun and engaging and his character’s well-rounded–almost to the point of overshadowing Ledger and his own sarcastic personality (I always saw Ledger as like the kid brother to Nelson DeMille’s John Corey–at least the early John Corey novels). It’s the exact type of sequel one would want.
Which is where, for me, we run into trouble. It’s not something I noticed when I first read the book, years ago, but subsequent readings have underscored it and, to me, The Dragon Factory always feels like Maberry’s rubbing his shoulders against the limits of a series. I’m not the biggest fan of series–they, when they stumble, become a matter of fan-service, leaving the stories and characters pale imitations of what they could be–because there’s a certain formula to the series. Unless the book is marked as the last one, you know the hero’s going to live. You know, a fair number of books in, that so-and-so among the characters is going to live to be the hero’s support system. This lowers the stakes and, thus, the emotional investment. Running into this, the writer has to go for broke on literally everything else to make it worthwhile or risk the series becoming the written equivalent of NCIS–and no one wants that kind of low-level, no-stakes, you know what’s going to happen because nothing changes, story.
Maberry to his credit bumps against this constantly and isn’t satisfied with mere fan-service, but the limits of a series are there.
Which runs into my really big problem with The Dragon Factory–(here’s that spoiler I warned you about so, seriously, fuck off)–the death of Major Grace Courtland.
Maberry is no slouch when it comes to characters and even his bit players feel like they have a pliable, livable backstory to them. Even when Courtland was introduced in the first book and she (very much predictably) became Ledger’s love interest, Maberry wasn’t satisfied just to have a soldier with tits or, even worse, a useless mannequin who somehow found herself on the battlefield. Courtland was a big draw and a satisfying inclusion to the book.
But, in action movies, heroes lose their love interests. The Ledger series is, while inverting shit here and there, an action book.
You know Courtland’s going to die. You can feel, in the text, Maberry bracing (himself as much as for us, I think) for her death–the sudden opening of feelings between the two, the escalating series of obstacles keeping the two apart. When hitman Conrad Veder finally punches her ticket, the reader saw it a mile away.
And that sucks. Two books in and a character that could’ve had equal footing with Ledger is gone in that predictable transitioning-to-the-third-act-of-First-Blood-Part-II. Nothing saves that. It gets compounded by the fact that we learn, in the third novel The King of Plagues, that Ledger finds and kills Conrad Veder, but it happens entirely off the page, prior to the events taking place in the novel. I have a nitpick about that, but I’ll save it for the actual review of Plagues. To me, it just felt dismissive of an actually really good character, and that compounded the suck-it-tude of Courtland’s death to begin with.
In the end, The Dragon Factory isn’t a bad novel and this is my third or fourth time reading it, but, when lined up against the other Ledger novels, you feel the sophomore-effort drag to the story and events.
Next, Maberry goes full-tilt-boogie into mind-fuck pulp fiction land with The King of Plagues.