Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

If you haven’t heard it yet, be prepared – The Passage by Justin Cronin (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is poised to become the next big thing in books. It all began with a bidding war, eventually won by Random House, and a nearly $4 million advance for a trilogy, followed quickly by a nearly $2 million movie deal. With such big dollars already invested, of course the marketing push is going to be equally impressive – to begin, something like 10,000 ARCs of one form or another were distributed. The Passage will be covered in the New York Times and every other major paper press still operating in books, it will be celebrity __’s pick of the year, book club, etc, and Cronin will make the talk show rounds. When you walk into an independent bookstore, the well-read, literary bookseller will tell you that you must read this book. The Passage will re-start the tired old debates about literary writers jumping into genre and not acknowledging it and I’m sure it’ll be at the center of discussions of genre books and awards at some point down the line. This is that book that all your friends who don’t read SFF will be reading and talking about.

But for the moment let’s forget about all of that. After all, this is a decidedly genre blog and the readers around here are fans of SFF. So, what is The Passage to us? Well, first off, it’s a damn good book. It takes the loveable, dark brooding and sexy vampires that pop culture has given us and morphs them into near-immortal, militarized weapons emerging from the labs of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). The Passage is Apocalyptic fiction giving time to events leading up to the apocalypse and even more exploring what the world is like 100 years later, a world barely alive and still battling for survival against the Virals. Overlooking all of the expected comparisons of ‘The Stand meets The Road’, The Passage takes ownership its adopted genre and deserves to be discussed in its own right – however unique it is or isn’t. The Passage really is one of those special books.

The Passage is told in two very separate parts. In the beginning we learn of a girl named Amy and how she finds herself an orphan with no last name. Then we learn about researchers with relatively crazy theories on the how a virus may have influenced the evolution of humanity and a failed expedition into the Amazon. Next we see how Amy ends up at a secret research facility for the USAMRIID and other unnamed agencies, along the way getting a feel for the world and what is about to happen. The army is looking for super-weapons created from a virus that can wipe out terrorist threats and just maybe a by-product will be the means to live forever. Of course things go horribly wrong and the twelve subjects escape, beginning the apocalypse. Amy is something else – a survivor of the virus, potentially immortal, at least very long-lived, but a child – a child with an adoptive father on the run.

The second section is told with a very different style and tone, beginning with survivors at a fortified enclave about 100 years in the future. We see how they live and die in a harsh world under the constant threat of Virals when everything changes on the day Amy arrives at their gates. A journey ensues – a journey to save the world.

Apocalyptic fiction delves into our fears of the direction the world has taken, and The Passage is no different. The near-future envisioned just prior to the apocalypse is the pessimistic extension of our own. The specter of global warming is making itself known. The United States’ struggles in the Middle East have grown into war with Iran. India and Pakistan have used their nuclear weapons. Terrorists strike the US heartland with regularity, driving it towards something close to a police state. Then the government does something really stupid and ends the world.

In the beginning, Cronin shows of his literary roots, telling the story in heart-wrenching chunks sure to bring tears to the eyes of those so inclined. Some of this section is very hard to read – both as a father and as a human concerned for the direction of our world. Cronin builds both sections of the book in the very literary tradition of dealing with themes of human relationships. The father-daughter relationship is perhaps the most prevalent, but a good bit of time is spent exploring those of father-son, husband-wife, lovers and adoptive families/communities.

Cronin succeeds not only by spinning a vampire apocalypse into a compelling story that needs to be read, but by creating characters that truly live. In the space of only a few lines he shows fully rendered characters. These characters as often unlikeable as they are likeable, but the reader quickly develops a bond with the core group of characters – a bond that carries through the hurts and joys.

The Passage weighs in at a hefty 766 pages in hardback, and this is perhaps its greatest weakness. Some scenes may not be all that necessary, but in the least, a few don’t feel as polished as they should be – The Haven comes to mind as one, though details would be a bit too spoilerish to share. The geologist in me was a bit bothered by the presentation of some of the towns in the future – some fates seem unlikely and make me wonder if Cronin has ever visited these dots on the map. Also a few of the character revelations near the end of the novel – particularly with Alicia – felt rushed or not quite right. The result is a bit uneven, but not so much that it impacts the overall quality of the book.

As mentioned above, The Passage is the first book of a planned trilogy, with the next installment expected in 2011. As such, it doesn’t stand on its own – The Passage is a story-arc with closure, though not real resolution. More is certainly to come – more that the reader is probably going to really want to read. And the last lines are a pretty juicy cliffhanger – not mind-blowing and not enough to generate out-right anger, but just right enough to dwell on.

So, the buzz surrounding The Passage is already huge and I see it only growing. It’s a genre book from a literary writer with potential appeal to a much wider audience than either alone. For us genre readers, a vampire apocalypse novel may not seem like it should be the next great book, but as always, it’s all about the execution – and Cronin executes The Passage with near-perfection. This book earns the buzz, this book should be read and discussed widely, this book is both literary and genre, this is a book I highly recommend. 8.5-9/10


Unknown said...

I am not going to bother giving this a review since you've summed it up here ;)

A trilogy? wow!

I am seeing this book everywhere.

Brett said...

As I posted over on the Westeros forums, I liked it myself.

Now I remember what the "girl face" cover reminds me of. It reminds me of the cover for the book The Giver.

Ryan said...

Another great review Neth. This book sounds really interesting, and it is always nice to see something live up to the hype. Thanks!

Ondrej from Popular Books said...

You just seem to be able to sway me in reading pretty much anything, good review.

R's Mom said...

I still can't stop recommending this book. Absolutely a desert island pick for me.

France said...

I love it when writers with absolutely no experience at genre fiction attempt to write an SF, fantasy, or horror tale. The result is usually a fascinating car-wreck, and this book is no exception. In fact, it accomplishes something I have never seen before in a novel:

After a gripping, thrilling start, this book keels over and dies on page 249.

That's when Cronin polevaults the action 100 years into the future, and trades a some truly compelling characters for a group of extremely dull fourth-generation survivors with nothing to do and names like Caleb.

After a few hundred pages of tedium,"The Passage" starts to claw its way back to life, but never fully recovers. Cronin has clearly put a great deal of thought into the Biblical symbolism of his novel (with which he bashes us over the head at every opportunity), but not much thinking has gone into the logic of his post-apocalyptic situation. (To protect themselves, survivors of the vampire-plague must keep a phalanx of lights running at night, so bright they blot out the stars; after a hundred years, they worry the batteries which store their wind-turbine energy are dying. Hello? Never mind the batteries -- what about the LIGHTBULBS? Surely they've blown a few of these colossal, blot-out-the-stars lamps over the last century -- where do the replacement bulbs come from? Also, they live in the desert; where does the water come from? The food? And apparently 100-year-old gasoline can still combust. A months-old corpse sitting out in the desert appears "little altered" from when she was alive.


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