No one would've blamed Justin Cronin for ignoring his daughter's opinion that his books were "probably boring." After all, the Rice University professor had won a Hemingway award for a respectably literary collection of linked short stories entitled Mary and O'Neil. But he listened to her, asked her what she thought he ought to write. Her response? Pen a book about a girl who saves the world. The result of this father/daught confab was The Passage, the first installment of an SF/horror trilogy about killer viruses, eviscerating vampires and brave souls struggling to survive in a world broken by both.
Before the end of all things, the girl was known by many names. Her mother called her Amy Harper Bellafonte, but when she abandoned her on the doorstep of the Covent of the Sisters of Mercy, she became Amy NLN -- "no last name." That's what the government agents who took her away wrote in their files, as did the doctors who put the chip in her neck and released the sickness into her body. The Twelve with her in the underground laboratory, those who were like her and yet unlike, whose minds she could touch, minds full of ravening bloodlust and the joy of killing, called her nothing at all. The good man who saved her when the doors opened and Twelve were loosed and the world perished in thirty-two short minutes simply called her Amy. But that is not how she would be known in the end. No, in the time when the Twelve and their Many held sway and humanity huddled behind their few remaining lights while fighting a deadly war of attrition, Amy Harper Bellafonte would become the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, the girl who lived for a thousand years ...
Let's start with the negative, which is where any curmudgeonly critic ought to begin. The Passage only has one real flaw, but it's a doozy -- its length. The novel runs a baffling 766 pages, which wouldn't be that big of deal on its own except that it's just the initial volume in a three-book set. Such breadth means that any sense of narrative structure flies right out the proverbial window. What seems like the novel's main thread (it takes up nearly a third of the book) is revealed as mere preface. Denouements blend with other rising actions, and climaxes end up confused with introductory exposition. Sometimes sorting the various plots feels like being slapped back and forth on a tetherball rope, and everything jerks to a halt so suddenly at the end that it almost imparts whiplash. A smooth read this is not.
But here's the good news: You'll scarcely care about the missteps by the time you clear the second or third chapter.
I read a lot of genre fiction, and I can honestly say it's been ages since anything has excited me as much as The Passage. There are nods to worthy works such as The Road (utterly beat-up post-apocalyptic settings), I Am Legend (naturalistic vampires hunting isolated humans) and A Canticle for Leibowitz (a willingness to dispatch beloved characters in heartrending ways). Cronin has a knack for action scenes as well as the ability to world-build through incidental detail. Prior to the escape of the Twelve, we read about a near future wherein Jenna Bush is Governor of Texas, the war on terror has escalated exponentially and New Orleans is nothing but a hurricane-battered, post-industrial wasteland. And in addition to crafting killer concepts, Cronin can flat out write. Whether describing a failed marriage or the mercy killing of an infected soldier, his prose is achingly beautiful. The book may be clunky, but it will sweep you away if you give it half a chance. So whether you love the literary scene or adore genre, you ought to step into The Passage. It'll take you someplace truly thrilling.
(Picture: CC 2007 by rofanator)