I read The Passage by Justin Cronin a couple of summers ago when it was being touted as a book of the year candidate. The book’s description reminded me of Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Stand. For me, it is King’s finest work and probably his most influential books over popular culture. As The Stand was published in1978, it’s a forward thinking book about a virus/plague that spreads across the earth, destroying all in its wake. Plagues have always been part of literature (Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death comes to mind) but nothing with this type of scope. King’s masterpiece is the precursor to most apocalyptic TV shows, movies, and books around today. For the good and the bad, we have the Walking Dead on AMC because of Stephen King. When Cronin’s book came out, I read the description (it reminded me of a retelling of The Stand with a twist), and decided to give it ago.
It was one of the first books I ever read using an e-reader. The Passage is immense and it was perfect for the format. I believe it was over a 1,000+ pages in length. So, instead of carrying this massive tome of a book around, it all fit nicely on a Kindle. Some books belong in the e-format and others do not. This was one of those books that worked. I really enjoyed the opening of the book. It had me hooked from the beginning. At the start, there is a scientist that is studying dead viruses–the type that ran amok across the planet centuries past but died out long ago. The head scientist basically finds an old strain dormant in the rain forrest and believes he is about to stumble upon a modern day fountain of youth. Of course, the government gets involved seeing a means to breed an invincible super solider, but instead we create a vampire race (called virals) that reap havoc across the land, ultimately destroying the United States. When the book is at its best, it shows how the virals escape from a Colorado military base and describes the science behind the virus. Yes, there is a field of science that researches dead viruses. A few hundred pages into The Passage, the plot shifts a century or so into the future where the virals rule the earth and a few remaining human cities still fight for survival. Not sure how we lost but apparently vampires trump military might. All in all, I enjoyed the first book despite its abrupt ending. Wikipedia has a nice overview of The Passage-it can give you more details.
The Twelve picks up where The Passage left off. It moves at a fast pace, giving us more detail of how the virus started and moved across the United States. This is where the book is at its best. My favorite character was a guy that worked at a sporting good chain. When all hell breaks loose, he grabs some guns from the store and holds up in the tallest building in Denver. The man blasts away virals, saves kids, and doesn’t take names or ask questions–or something like that. However, he doesn’t last long. Justin Cronin’s twitter bio says that he writes really long books where many people die. Yes, my favorite character in the book lasted about 70 pages, give or take. Sure, this puts a reader off but keeps you on your toes as well. I enjoyed reading how the virals spread havoc across the United States. The novel brings up multiple problems of how you defend major cities, moral dilemmas of using innocent civilians as vampire bait, and the use of the atomic bomb on US soil. My favorite part of the book was when the Joint Chiefs of Staff grilled the head of the vampire virus program. As thousands of virals spread across the country, it felt believable that our government would bring the head of the program before Congress to testify. So, you thought that creating a virus that turns the population into vampires and will destroy the world was a good idea? I laughed out loud during this part of the book.
Justin Cronin has created a complex and remarkable story. Despite the premise being laughable, vampires reign in a big, believable world. And that maybe the problem. The Twelve jumps back and forth from the future to the past so much that it’s hard to keep it all straight. It reminded of the part in Funny Farm where Chevy Chase’s wife–after reading his book for the first time–claims that he had written at least twelve flash backs and a flash sideways in the first twenty pages. This works in The Passage but the execution wasn’t handled well here. It could be that I don’t have the time to read as much as I used to, or I didn’t pay close enough attention but this was a problem throughout. Perhaps, I don’t know what I’m talking about but the Wikipedia overview of The Twelve didn’t make a lick of sense. And I read the book. As a side note, Wikipedia generally does a fairly good job of summarizing books. I wish I would have had it as a resource for high school book reports. It would have saved time because even some classic books aren’t worth reading. I had some friends in high school that were pretty impressive in faking oral book reports in senior english.
The other issue I had with this book is that it is graphic. Yeah, I might be getting old. Stephen King always had this knack for going one step too far. There are still parts of the book It (Remember, the freaky killer clown) that keep me up at night–pages that I wish I could unread. Justin Cronin had a knack in The Twelve for going about ten steps too far. The Passage had parts that were gruesome (Yes, we are talking vampires that rip people limb from limb) but the sequel goes to the next level. If that is what the author was trying to accomplish, then job well done. But this is a not a book that I would let a kid touch. Even I would like to unread parts of it.
All in all, The Twelve let me down in spots. There wasn’t as much science to the book and it jumped around too much for my liking. The author could have let this book cook a bit more before taking to print. However, I had a thousand pages invested in the first book and I’ll probably read the last book of the trilogy when it comes out in a couple of years. It really is hard to review this book without seeing the entire picture. I think I will finish it anyway–still parts of this book bothered me. But it’s hard to step away after investing so much into something. It’s a lesson I never learned in economics. The Twelve is a big ambitious world with death all around. Who knew that an evil new society got its start in Iowa? Not for the faint of heart but if you like apocalyptic vampire books there is far worse out there. Like the rest of the world, I wish I could unwatch the first Twilight movie.