James Abel’s ‘Protocol Zero’ is a Ten

By Kaitlyn Stockdale

What if one of the world’s greatest fears came true? What if you had to choose between your job, protecting people and your fiancee? In James Abel’s new Alaskan thriller, Protocol Zero, that’s exactly what happens.

In the book, released on Aug. 4, a soldier-turned-army-doctor, Joe Rush, is sent to Alaska to study microbes and possible diseases that could be escaping from the melting ice.  Accustomed to studying biological weapons, Joe is predisposed to the fear that his discoveries could be deadly, especially to innocent citizens. And then suddenly, after months of finding nothing, the unexplained deaths he feared begin to happen.

This is a novel about an outbreak, which, after the many disease-related crises of recent years, resonates deeply with the audience. The conflict of this book is not something fantastic or unbelievable, but instead something very real that could happen at any time. Even the author’s choice to use an actual disease continues the novel’s realistic effect. This humbling reminder of our own mortality serves to transport the reader into the plotline – they can imagine this happening in their own lives, and can therefore connect much more poignantly to the characters and the layered conflict.

The characters of Protocol Zero appear more real and relatable because they are not one-dimensional, as many are, purely heroic or purely evil. Instead, Joe Rush, who is already dealing with the difficult choices he had to make in war, must again face decisions in which someone always gets hurt. The decision to make the main character a soldier who has already had to handle situations in which no one wins shows how truly scarring moral conflicts can be, even to someone who has faced them before. The nightmares and flashbacks included in the novel, alongside Joe’s agonizing indecision over the conflict, reflect the uncertainty we all face in our lives. Even one of the antagonists shows real regret for his deception, proving that in stories, as well as in life, ordinary people can do unspeakable things.

While Joe struggles with morality in situations that are hopelessly complex, his superiors strive to enforce easy conclusions. The novel explores the results of government cover-ups, implications of weapons testing programs years after they’ve ended and people who, even when their jobs are to protect millions of lives, put furthering their career before doing their actual jobs.

This commentary on human morality is complemented by the engaging prose of the novel. Joe’s strong voice makes for an interesting read, and his characterization is captivating enough so that the novel is never boring. He is able to include colorful details of the setting and other characters to fill out the novel without making the book a dry read. Abel colorfully takes the reader to the frigid parts of Alaska through vivid descriptions such as, “The sea, thirty yards off, was black as anthracite and dotted with an early pancake glaze of ice. Locals had told me that the big pack would come in soon, to extend all the way to the pole, eight hundred miles north.”  The author also shows impressive knowledge of Alaskan life and what the Iñupiat people and their customs are actually like, rather than just a Hollywood dramatization.

Protocol Zero justly deserves its designation as a thriller; there are several twists that are the perfect balance of unexpected and believable. Abel’s use of dramatic irony keeps the adrenaline of the the novel high as the readers anxiously wait for Joe Rush to piece the clues together. Even the climax comes by surprise and causes readers to question what we define as “moral,” and what we think should happen to “bad” people. The readers are confronted with the real questions of what justice is and how far we can take it before we lose our humanity. They must also consider who is qualified to enact this “justice” – government entities or the people who have been directly affected and directly hurt.

This novel has action, camaraderie, well-written characters and a complex plot that is engaging to the end, all while dealing with issues that extend outside of the novel’s confines. Speaking as a picky reader, the book entertained me, connected me to the characters and caused me to seriously consider the larger issues it presents. Protocol Zero comes highly recommended.

Kaitlyn Stockdale can be reached at kaitlyn.stockdale@spartans.ut.edu.

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