Review – “The Passage” by Justin Cronin

Review – “The Passage” by Justin Cronin

Let me start by saying that I read “The Passage” somewhat against my will.  I don’t do vampires – or virals – or whatever you want to call creatures that drink blood, can’t survive in direct light, and can only be killed by a projectile through the chest.  They’re not my cup of tea.  I also shied away because there has been SO much hype around the book.  To me, that’s more often that not, a reason to stay away.  So why did I it?  Two reasons.  First, Stephen King put it on his list of 10 great summer reads.  That’s pretty high praise.  Second, a personal friend suggested the book to me.  With those two recommendations in mind, I decided to take the plunge and give it a chance.

“The Passage” tells a story of the end of the world.  In many ways, it’s an apocalypse story that you’ve read before.  A secret government plan goes horribly wrong and precipitates an end-of-the-world event.  In this case, the powers that be are experimenting on death row inmates, trying to create the ultimate super-soldiers.  What they create is something more akin to a vampire (or viral as they are referred to).  A decision is made to try and take the experiment to the next level, and they abduct a young girl as the next test victim.  She turns out to be something special – something far more than they bargained for.  When the virals escape from containment, they begin to spread their disease, which begins the end of civilization as we know it.

That is just the first act of the book.  In reality, the story reads more like two novels – Siamese twins of a sort; joined at the hip, but with distinct and separate personalities.  The first 200+ pages deal with the events that lead up to the apocalypse, and the first year of it’s immediate aftermath.   Think of it as a REALLY long prologue.

The second act of the story picks up 93 years after the viral outbreak. You are introduced to a completely contained community (The Colony), and see how it has adapted to a world overrun by virals.  Forced to live behind walls and run high intensity lights all night, every night, the colonists have evolved, or devolved, into an existence that’s more of a subsistence than a living.  This is a fully realized world that draws you in and feels very much like the logical destination for a world overrun with “vampires”.

The narrative in act two builds slowly at first; pieces falling together one by one.  The colonists are not as happy as they appear, and 93 years of constant vigilance has taken a toll on them.  Events begin to coalesce around a conclusion when a strange girl comes into the Colony – the first uninfected outsider they have seen in a very long time.

This girl is the catalyst for moving the story into its third and final act – a traditional quest story.  A group of the colonists believe that this girl holds the key to a future without the virals.  They set out to return her to the mountains of Colorado – ground zero for the original outbreak.   This journey proves to be the climax of the story, as it grinds towards conclusion.

There’s a lot going on – I’ve only scratched the surface here – and it took me a while to really get in to the story.  As I mentioned, it really reads like two different books.  I understand why Cronin structured it the way he did – getting the full backstory in detail, added some weight to the end of the story.  It gave you a sense of the scope and grandeur that he was going for.  Getting through all of that setup, however, was a bit tough.  There were times when I really considered setting the book aside and calling my aversion to “all things vampire” fully justified and confirmed.

I didn’t quit though – I plowed on – and once I reached the second act, I was hooked.  The fully constructed world and dynamic social interactions really paid off for me.  Cronin has a polished writing style that fit the timbre of the second act far better than the first.

Sara waited a respectful time, knowing there was nothing she could do to ease the woman’s pain.  Grief was a place, Sara understood, where a person went alone.  It was like a room without doors, and what happened in that room, all the anger and the pain you felt, was meant to stay there, nobody’s business but yours.

This expansive and expressive writing was more at home in simpler world of the infected future – and that made me feel more at home there as well.

Ultimately, I did end up enjoying this story.  It was a tough read in places, but in others it flowed with the ease of campfire smoke on a summer breeze.  In many ways, “The Passage” is story about the duality of existence.  It’s a about the people who cling to the light and the creatures the move in the dark.  It’s about the yearning to live in freedom and the acceptance of existing in fear.  It is itself, a book in two halves – a story about today and an exploration of tomorrow.  For me, it was a book that both bored and entertained me – I survived the first and third acts, and loved the second act.   I can see why Stephen King put it on his summer reading list and it will be hard for seasoned readers not to see echoes of “The Stand” in both the style and the substance of this story.  This is an inevitable comparison, and one that will leave “The Passage” lacking.  It’s a good novel, but it’s not the same caliber or scope as “The Stand”.

I broke one of my cardinal reading rules (albeit unintentionally) with this book – “Never read a series of books until the entire series has been published”.  Why you ask?  For the same reason that I have given up watching new TV series until they have been renewed for a second season – I don’t want to emotionally invest in characters and a story unless I know that my investment will be paid off.  If a story engages me, I don’t enjoy waiting a year or two to see what happens next.  The unresolved feeling the last few pages of “The Passage” delivered, tainted the overall experience for me a bit.  I guess I’ll check back in a few years, when I know there is an ending, and see how it all turns out.


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