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Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage - US cover
The Passage by Justin Cronin

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

Something has gone terribly wrong at a secret government facility where blood-chilling experiments were being conducted on death-row inmates. The inmates--transformed into horrific beasts that are part-vampire, part-zombie--have escaped, spreading a plague of death and destruction across the entire continent. Generations after the horrible night that started it all, a small group of survivors seeks to unlock the riddle of what happened and find a way to prevent extinction. As they struggle to stay alive, they are visited by an enigmatic girl who appears to be a hundred years old and who may just hold the key to everything.

This is Justin Cronin's The Passage, a book so epic and engaging that it has already become a huge international success story, even though it is only being released in stores today. This novel is certainly a change for Cronin, whose previous works are literary fiction and not the obvious genre fiction of a post-apocalyptic vampire tale. However, Cronin brings all of his seriousness and dexterity of words to bear, lending The Passage a surprising heft and realism that defies the fantastic--at times almost ridiculous--nature of the story.

From the description above, it might seem that this story is a tired sci-fi/horror cliché only a fanboy could love, but there's far more here than meets the eye. Cronin cleverly weaves a tale that can easily be compared to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, or at least a dozen other masterful genre novelists, and that should be taken as a compliment. However, he takes great care with his characters and the world around them to craft something that is emotional and poignant without feeling like something you've read before.

Justin Cronin
He's also an English professor

Coming in it at an astounding 766 pages, The Passage isn't a quick read. The format of the story refuses to allow you to get a foothold on it before it rips the carpet out from under you by switching up the narrative, not once, but twice. There are also lots of characters to keep track of, including several that only last a few chapters. In addition to all of that, the universe is impossibly deep, especially during the post-apocalyptic segments, with plenty of ideas and jargon to keep up with. Cronin has put so much thought into every detail of his world that you will spend most of the book trying to keep up, and for that reason, this is not your typical pulp.

And yes, there are vampires. While vampires may seem completely tapped as a genre, with True Blood and Twilight beating that dead horse into the ground with vigor, Cronin's vampires are as atypical as his storytelling. Without spoiling too much, the vampires (going by several different names, including "virals" and "smokes") are a clever blend of myth and beast, containing few supernatural qualities aside from telepathy. This makes them seem more like acrobatic, fanged zombies than vampires, and for the purposes of the novel, which is primarily about survival, that makes sense.

Still, Cronin does get carried away from time to time. Some of his action beats are over-the-top to the point of being silly (a certain sequence involving a train comes to mind), and he does occasionally get lost in moments that can seem terribly irrelevant. These two minor complaints combine to form a book that can seem a little jarring and uneven, occasionally moving too quickly and too slowly at the same time. It also gets tiresome reading huge sections that focus on the intricate details of new characters, never knowing which characters are going to persist and which are going to be unceremoniously slaughtered as soon as you can get a handle on them. In the end, it does feel like the novel could have been a bit shorter.

Ridley Scott
Film rights were sold to Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions, meaning a film version has a 67% chance of starring Russell Crowe

Additionally, Cronin's literary style does, every once in a while, betray him. For the most part, his writing is mesmerizing, even beautiful, but sometimes, he latches on to a sloppy metaphor and unwisely stretches it across multiple, exhausting paragraphs. Still, his dialogue is spot-on, which not only separates the characters but gives each of them a unique-sounding voice.

He is also adept at point-of-view. Throughout the novel, the point of view meanders through dozens of different characters, but no two characters have the same perception of events or attitudes towards them. This makes his characters full-fledged, three-dimensional human beings and not the cookie-cutter stereotypes he could have easily fallen back on. There are soldiers, scientists, nuns, engineers, and leaders, but they are like the vampires in that they refuse to be cornered into being cliché.

This is why The Passage is worth your time. While the story may seem like standard genre fluff, Cronin has created a novel that is breathtakingly original. It can be compared to everything from Shakespeare to Mad Max, and that only speaks to how hard it is to nail down exactly what it is that Cronin has so deftly accomplished. I, for one, can't wait to read the next installment. Oh, did I forget to mention that this is only the first book in a series?


While certainly not perfect, this epic adventure is both fun and poignant, a must-read that you will be thinking about long after the final page is turned.

[Special thanks to the Salon Reading Club, which allowed me to receive an advance copy of the book. Take part in the discussion over at Open Salon!]

You can also read my review of the second book in the series, The Twelve!

-e. magill 6/8/2010

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