Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

I tend to prefer compact novels nowadays, something tightly-plotted with tons of characterization and clear, concise writing. Tasty but nutritious and not too fattening.

But every now and then, I want to order a 13" meat-lovers pizza supreme with extra cheese and eat the whole damn thing.

The Passage features a huge cast of characters, including lots of unnecessary cannon fodder, spans a time period of more than a hundred years, gives us a bunch of improbable twists that I saw coming a mile away, some pretty decent prose that occasionally meanders into overwrought literary look-at-me-showing-off-my-MFA-I-am-not-just-a-genre-writer territory, and forty million vampires of the non-sparkly kind.

"It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born."

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

It's true that once the vampire apocalypse goes down, things happen pretty fast, but it takes several hundred pages to get there. Is it worth it?

So, to start out with, one of my favorite books is Stephen King's The Stand. The unabridged, 1152-page author's edition where he put back in all the stuff editors made him cut in the first edition back before he was Stephen "I can publish my grocery list" King. The Stand is an epic and epically bloated piece of work, full of tangents about nothing to do with the story and chapters about characters who are just going to die when the shit goes down anyway, and some of the plot devices are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. (Like deciding the best place to settle in a world where there's no more electricity or running water or mass transportation is Denver or Las Vegas.) I still love it. I love the 1994 miniseries with Molly Ringwald and Gary Sinese, too. Hollywood! Why are you not remaking The Stand instead of shit like Clash of the Titans and Knight Rider? Yet another Highlander movie will make Baby Jesus cry!

Ahem. So anyway, The Stand is not the Great American Novel or anything like great literature, but it's entertaining and messy and stupid and just a damn good read. The Passage is a lot like that. Actually, it's so much like that that sometimes I wondered how much was Cronin paying homage to King, and how much was Cronin not sure what to do next so he copied King.

Just a few of the similarities:

  • U.S. Army creates virus that's supposed to be a superweapon.
  • U.S. Army screws the pooch, unleashes virus, kills most of the human race.
  • Lots of menacing, amoral government agents who slaughter unfortunate witnesses because the government is evil.
  • Long, meandering tangents in which we find out about some character's fucked-up childhood which is the reason he's such a fucked-up individual now, not that we really need to know this because he's just going to become vampire kibble two chapters later.
  • A folksy old mystical black woman who talks to God.
  • We've got to go to Colorado! I don't know why, we just do!

And last but certainly not least:

Sacrificing yourself to blow up the Big Bad with a nuke? Where have we seen this before?

The Passage is divided into two halves. The first half takes place in a vaguely near-future alternate America. It's never explicitly stated that this is an alternate America, but Cronin has made tiny little changes here and there to make it different and a little more sinister. The War on Terror still exists here and 9/11 happened, but apparently the big terrorist attack was a suicide bomber at the Mall of America, and it was Iran that got invaded afterwards. It's not clear why Cronin altered some of these details. But the result is a United States that is just a little bit more of a police state than in our world (unless you're one of those folks who believes Obama's Islamofascist UN troops in black helicopters are already preparing to round up your guns and outlaw Christianity, in which case, don't worry, it won't matter once the vampire apocalypse starts).

In the beginning, a college professor and a bunch of grad students go down to South America to research these crazy rumors of vampire bats and natives who enjoy unusually long lives. Oh, and the Army is funding them and sending a few soldiers with them, which kind of makes the academics wonder, but hey, who cares since Uncle Sam is paying for the trip, right?

Anyone who's ever seen a SyFy Channel Saturday movie knows this will not end well.

Despite nearly everyone being slaughtered, they manage to bring back samples of the virus, and the Army proceeds to set up a super-secret base in Colorado where they begin experimenting on human test subjects. Using condemned criminals. Also, they recruit convicted sex offenders who've undergone chemical castration to be the guards (since they're expendable).

Anyone who's ever read a comic book knows this will not end well.

So for the next several hundred pages things clip along as all the characters who are involved in the impending apocalypse are introduced, we find out their life stories, they become part of the plot, and then most of them die. Fast forward a hundred years.

Most of America has been depopulated. It is not clear whether the vampires spread beyond the Americas, or if the rest of the world successfully isolated the Western hemisphere -- there is some speculation by the characters as to whether other countries are still out there, but the consensus is that the vampires probably got everyone. I would say this is pretty obvious since otherwise there'd be radio signals and airplane flyovers and the like, but those are the kind of realistic details that Cronin is often sloppy about, so I don't entirely trust him not to reveal in the next book that there is, in fact, a Pan-European-Asian-Australian-African Federation that's somehow managed to quarantine North and South America for a hundred years.

The vampires (who are called "virals" or "smokes," because they smoke under sunlight) are, for the most part, mindless predators. They have phenomenal strength and speed, they can leap so high they seem to fly, and they're very hard to kill. Anyone wounded by a vampire becomes infected and will either die or become a vampire also. Cronin plays with a few other vampire tropes, especially when we learn more about them, towards the end of the book.

The main characters in the second part come from a surviving colony in California, a walled town that's been living a precarious existence for generations. Various things happen to cause a small party of intrepid main characters to go to Colorado. They meet other people and vampires along the way, discover secrets about the origins of the end of the old world, hints that there may be a way to save the human race (i.e., get rid of the virals), and then on the last page, Cronin ends it with a cliffhanger. Oh, what, you didn't know this was the first book in a trilogy?

Cronin, as I mentioned in the beginning, seems to aspire to be a great novelist. Whether he succeeds or not I guess depends on whether you think Stephen King is a great novelist. But Cronin doesn't have King's chops yet. He also doesn't have King's guts: although The Passage does have danger and bloodshed and monsters and character deaths, I felt like every single time something bad was about to happen, Cronin just gave us a nick where King would have plunged the knife in and twisted.

Nonetheless, this monster of a book held my interest all the way to the end and makes me want to read the next one.

Verdict: This is a good book, not a great book, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. To reiterate the point I reiterated above, if you liked The Stand, you should like The Passage, and if you didn't like The Stand, maybe you should read something other than 800-page apocalyptic thrillers.
Tags: books, horror, justin cronin, reviews, vampires don't sparkle!

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