If you want to see what damning with faint praise looks like, consider how reviewers have handled Justin Cronin's The Twelve, the sequel to the literary/horror hybrid The Passage. Todd VanDerWerff of A.V. Club sniffs about its "tendency to lean too heavily on sentimentality" while still concluding that "the book is compulsively readable," and Tor.com's Niall Alexander grouses about how its "plot progresses in frustrating fits and starts," yet admits "I had a hard time putting it down." Not to say that such criticisms are without merit. The book's action unfolds in a herky-jerky manner, its characters lack the fully rounded development we saw in The Passage, and Cronin pulls out a pair of twists that come perilously close to cheating on his speculative premise.
For my part, though, I hardly care. The Twelve is possibly the most exciting thing I've read all year.
Amy Harper Bellafonte -- the Girl from Nowhere, the One Who Walked In, the child who lived for a thousand years, the keeper of souls -- isn't the only one to have witnessed the hundred years of viral domination that has engulfed North America, a plague transforming the infected into insectile, blood-drinking monsters. The original hosts have likewise survived, a group of twelve who were once death-row inmates and their ruler, a biochemistry professor named Tim Fanning who became the first, The Zero, the fount of woe and torment. This cabal serves as the locus, a hive mind linking each and every viral, controlling them as they cut a swath from sea to shining sea. But there are still more who have outlasted the usual span of human years -- the familiars, the servants of the twelve who retained their human form if not their normal appetites. They include those like Lawrence Grey, the Unleasher of Night, Grey the Source, Familiar of the One Called Zero. It's a great, terrible host arrayed against Amy and rag-tag survivors of the Republic of Texas. Yet they may find help from unexpected quarter -- perhaps even from those like Grey himself.
We've gotten the negatives out of the way already, right? You understand that The Twelve is marginally less literary than its predecessor and that it pulls some dubious bunnies out of its proverbial hat, namely by granting the virals a bit too much mental independence and by resurrecting a character who (according to earlier events) ought to have died horribly. But enough with the gripes. Let's move on to what Cronin's second trip to genreland did well.
The fantastic elements are as good a place to start as any. The Passage stood firmly on territory claimed by SF and horror writers such as Walter Miller, Jr. and Stephen King. But with The Twelve, Cronin moves into surreal, nearly numinous places. Amy's odd role in salvaging humanity's heritage becomes even more mysterious as it takes center stage, and she undergoes several transformations best described as ... rather unexpected. Psychic warfare also emerges, although Cronin wisely cloaks it in a literary style to make it all the more enigmatic. And the action. Understand, I have young children at home; sleep is a precious commodity. The Twelve robbed me of more than a little rest with its amped-up opening and an ending that's pure adrenaline. The middle parts of the novel excel at worldbuilding, and Cronin uses it for more than just window dressing, turning his setting to address noteworthy themes. Unlike most monster epics, The Twelve never lets you forget that the viral hordes are human, that they're mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends. Finally, Cronin spends a fair amount of time musing about religion and its proper place in both society at large and individual lives, while never explicitly stumping for a particular faith. In a genre that typically portrays believers of any stripe as ignorant at best and mentally maladjusted at worst, it's refreshing to see someone approach the topic with seriousness and nuance. Overall, The Twelve excels. What are you waiting for? Take and read.
(Picture: CC 2006 by Mexicanwave)