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I wish I'd given it a pass(age).
The Passage - Justin Cronin
Member Name: manifesto
The Passage - Justin Cronin
Date: 06/03/12, updated on 11/04/12 (35 review reads)
Advantages: A strong opening, and some interesting concepts.
Disadvantages: Too long, sloppily written, and not really that new.
Sometimes the people at Waterstones are just so nice that you can't resist their recommendations. One day I got talking with a member of staff about how the whole vampire craze is a bit tired, and how I wished there were more new horror books that were actually horror and not necrophilic romances. She recommended a new release, "The Passage", saying she didn't want to spoil it, but if I liked vampires and modern horror like "28 Days Later", I would enjoy it. When I saw it on special offer at the counter, I picked it up with confidence. Justin Cronin's work was new to me; he's written before, but this is his breakout novel, the first in a planned trilogy. The next book, "The Twelve" is due out this year, and film rights to "The Passage" have already been bought.
It's essentially a book with two main acts. The first act begins pre-apocalypse, following a government experiment that genetically enhances humans using a viral strain; it doesn't sound like a good idea, and disaster strikes when mutant inmates escape the facility, carrying a volatile contagion with them. A young girl called Amy is also used in the experiment, but seems resistant to its ill effects, and escapes to hide in the mountains with her rescuer, likeable FBI agent Brad Wolgast. There, they sit out the unfolding apocalypse in isolation. Then the book jumps nearly a hundred years into the future, post-apocalypse, to a colony of human survivors. They live in a self-contained, heavily fortified military facility called the Haven, miles away from anywhere - as far as they can possibly know, they're the only survivors left. They venture out of the facility during the day, but live in fear at night, when the "virals" (heavily mutated vampire-like creatures) come out to hunt. The Haven is protected by powerful flood lights during the night, but when their power sources begin to fail, it starts to look like their only chance of survival is to brave the wildnerness.
I have really mixed feelings about this book. Cronin's barren new America has some good ideas. The virals, bioluminescent freaks of science, are scary and challenging opposition. They are to vampires what 28 Days' "rage zombies" are to traditional slow zombies - not strictly canon, but an interesting twist. But the author was really onto something with the first act of the book, and I can't help feeling he threw the baby out with the bathwater in the big jump to the second act, and then wasn't able to cut it.
Cronin's style just doesn't have enough grit. His world is sterile and unbelievable, killing off whatever was left of the first part's modern, urban vitality. The pace of the book becomes so indulgently slow that there's rarely a sense of real urgency or tension, no matter how dire the characters' plight becomes.
The whole world is limp. People can barely even swear, shouting "Flyers!" in times of distress, a bizarrely childish euphemism that I thought meant the paper things at first (though it's of course a reference to the virals). Enemies are "bladed" or "taken on a blade" instead of just having the living daylights stabbed out of them. Gritty precision would have served the story way better than that kind of faffing around. The whole middle of the book is full of sloppy mistakes and repeated phrases - couldn't someone have slapped his editor awake? I managed to slog through all of it, and I wasn't even contractually obliged to!
Not only is the prose flat as pancakes, but so is the new cast of characters. There's Peter, the reluctant hero (think Peter from "Heroes", another wet blanket with brother issues); Alicia, the fiery, independent redhead who Don't Need No Man; Michael, the techie guy that people insist on referring to as "the Circuit", even though "Michael" is shorter; Sara, the nice nurse lady, and then a bunch of other people who I didn't care about either. They all act in the same way and speak in the same toneless voice, coming and going and failing to make an impression.
Basically, it's a Stephen King doorstopper with none of King's conversational tone; "The Road" with none of the character and lyricism; "I Am Legend" with none of the brevity (and I mean no brevity, at all, anywhere); "28 Days Later" without the visceral intensity or benefits of Cillian Murphy's face. Then - I can just see Cronin patting himself on the back - the story just peters out in an obvious segue into the next book. Nigh on a thousand pages and "The Passage" isn't even stand-alone.
I think its big downfall is that Cronin has his apocalyptic cake and tries to eat it too, jumping from one big novel-worthy idea to another, expecting the reader to follow him without getting whiplash. As much as I love post-apocalypse survival stuff, it's been done better dozens of times in books, films, and games. "The Passage" fails to bring anything truly new to the table, and throws out its best ideas early on. A book about an apocalypse-in-progress would have been way more interesting, and something that hasn't been done enough already.
I don't hate it - I even loved the first part. It was taut and mysterious, and I was really rooting for the characters' survival. It's just the complacent twist that I was unable to forgive for the next six hundred pages. It's pretty much two books in one cover: one of them good, full of potential, and not long enough, and the other substandard, trite, and way too long.
So, though I love horror, monsters, and sci-fi, this just didn't do it for me. And what does a structure that looks "like an inside-out spider" even look like?
Summary: Your mileage my vary, but I doubt I'll be picking up the next instalment.