#32: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Begun: 4/6/2011
Finished: 4/25/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

You know when you’re reading a book, a long one, and you get to that point where you’re just like “Well, crap. I just have to push on through to the end, now.” I got there last night with Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and as a direct result I only got three hours’ sleep.

Some books are agreeable sorts. They ask for some time with you, for you to share some emotions or thoughts as you read them. This book? Not enough. This book would like very much to take you by the throat and do some breathplay on you while playing experimental German techno music in the background. It would like to barge into your kitchen and start baking something crazy, like bacon avocado cookies. It would really appreciate the opportunity to play Red Rover with the other books because those would be some busted-ass wrists on the other team. This bookdemands an investment. A big investment. This book thinks you ought to make an informed decision and that eye protection should possibly be worn in this area.

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Any book of this length (750+ pages) is a big investment. The only question, do you get a decent return for it? For me, the answer here is “hell yes.” When you’ve just read 700+ pages and are still eyeing the diminishing thickness of pages to be read with dismay that it’ll be over soon, that’s a return on your investment. Even when you’re well aware that this book is the first of a trilogy. The Passage was my designated Big Ass Novel for April, the book I get to spend the whole month reading. It was also my Nighttable book, but after three weeks I wasn’t very far because nighttable reading tends to be sleepy time for Lori. I was only 150 pages in by last Friday, so I decided to take some weekend time and really attack it. By Sunday night I was up to page 550, and last night I picked it up intending to read another fifty or so but then Book decided that it was Not With the Having Of That and that I’d be finishing it tonight, encroaching dawn notwithstanding. For this reason, today I am functioning on three hours’ sleep. But it was worth it.

You can’t read any press about this book without hearing how much like The Stand it is. I can’t deny the comparison but the criticism to me doesn’t stand up (heh, sorry) because any book that is post-apocalyptic bears some debt to The Stand. That book is to post-apocalyptic novels what Tolkien is to fantasy-quest novels. To paraphrase a higher authority than me, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien is to fantasy what Mt. Fuji is to Japanese art. It’s either in the foreground, the background, or you can’t see it at all because you’re standing on it. That being said, there are some elements shared withThe Stand that seem a bit too similar, right down to a wise old black woman (two of them, actually), a climactic nuclear bomb, and a journey to Colorado. There are also things that seem reminiscent of “The Walking Dead” (the graphic novel, not the TV show) including a group of survivors living in an abandoned prison and a ring where outsiders are sacrificed/executed.

Basically, if you took The Stand and compressed it down, that’s the first 250 pages of this book, about which I must also say that Misleading Book Jacket Blurb is Misleading. The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is the journey of one little girl and her former FBI agent protector as they navigate the post-apocalypse. And it is. For the first 200 pages. Then the book takes a significant time leap and veers off into totally new territory.

I suppose I ought to say what it’s about. Basically, your typical Government Project Gone Awry has been trying to use a weird virus found in some bats in an Amazonian jungle to engineer immortal supersoldiers, using twelve death row inmates as test subjects, but the virus instead transforms them into “virals,” superstrong creatures kinda-sorta like vampires (although this term is rigorously avoided) who are sort of a combination of the energetic-rage-zombies of “28 Days Later” and Nosferatu. Also they glow in the dark. The virals escape and start with the killing, “taking up” (infecting) one person for each nine they just kill, and within about a month the entire Western hemisphere is overtaken. Six-year-old Amy Bellafonte, the final test subject (the one surviving Amazon project research guy thinks the virus would work better on young people), survives and becomes a sort of superhuman hybrid but not a blood-drinking viral. FBI agent Brad Wolgast hides her in an abandoned summer camp for a year until a nuclear blast kills him (kinda).

Fast forward 92 years to one surviving FEMA colony in California populated by the descendants of children who were evacuated via train at the end of the epidemic. They live in a walled compound with blazing nighttime lights to keep the virals away and have their own society. Here’s where you are asked to make an investment, because Cronin spends a good deal of time here on worldbuilding and character backstory for an entirely new cast of people, but it’s worth the time because these are the folks we’ll be with for the rest of the book and, presumably, the others. Trouble starts with two things: one, the batteries for the lights (powered by wind turbines) are dying and cannot be fixed, so soon the lights will go out for good, and two, Amy appears in the camp. She is 100 years oldish but appears about fourteen. A band of colonists sets out to find the lab Amy came from and have wacky road trip adventures involving virals and the Army and armored trains and the Republic of Texas.

Cronin rewards your patience in setting the stage for these events by making this journey from California to Colorado jam-packed with action, which he’s damn good at conveying — not too much detail nor too little — and some really great plot twists. He’s not afraid to endanger and even kill major characters so you never get too comfy. He’s a little too dependent on the chapter (or section) ending cliffhanger, which we come back from several sections later to find that what was about to happen didn’t happen at all. He also employs an authorial device I hate, namely the Omniscient Narrator Interruption to say things like “Peter was soon to learn just what Alicia was capable of!” and such, but that’s pretty infrequent. The handling of point of view is spotty and sometimes unclear, but overall the writing is serviceable. I didn’t notice it, which is my criteria for decent writing. Nothing jarred me out of the story with a Speedbump of Bad Writing.

Another reason to invoke The Stand is the writing itself, actually, which is more than a little reminiscent of King’s. It’s all about story, story, story and anything NOT story is given the enthusiastic heave-ho. The book is a little light on character, although we get to know some of them quite well, and Cronin does well with the women, i.e. they are as varied and distinct as the men and about equally represented. Still, given these criticisms, the book more than delivered on the promise it made me for my investment of about 400 pages before things really got going, which is to make those first hours worth my time in the end.

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