Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ Trilogy – An avid reader’s review
So…how exactly does one write a book review?
The trick to a good review is not to give away too much of the plot – give your opinion, give a general gist of the story line, just enough to hook (or deter) the next unsuspecting reader…what I thought to be an impossible task. You see, not only was I contemplating writing a book review, but I was thinking of doing it for three book series. Masochistic? Me? Never.
Obviously, I’m one person and this is one opinion. I’m not a book reviewer for the New York Times Best Sellers list (which, incidentally, The Passage spent seven weeks on), but I do love to read, and I love to write so here we are. Thanks to a friend, I took the plunge, and once I started writing…I couldn’t stop. These books are just…well, you’ll see.
Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy is not my usual read. But, to be fair, I’m not sure it could be called a usual read by anyone.
It’s a story of action, adventure, science fiction and fantasy, and just the tiniest (yes, the tiniest) bit of romance. It’s a journey through time, over a thousand years, yet over in the blink of an eye. And it makes you think that maybe, just maybe…anything is possible.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a book twice. I generally feel the magic is over once you know the characters, the plot, and the resolution of a story. There are some exceptions to the rule, of course – the Harry Potter books (you can thank my 11 year old self), Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which I will read over and over again until the day I die), and the Lev Grossman Magicians series (which I have only read the once, but fully intend to read again once enough time has passed). As you can probably tell, I lean towards the supernatural side of the fiction genre spectrum. So when I started reading The Passage Trilogy I thought I knew what I was in for.
I was so wrong.
I read the first two books last year, when I first discovered them by chance on the ‘suggested reads’ section of my Amazon account. I downloaded them, inhaled them, and when the third book came out a few months ago…well, let’s just say I went out and bought the paperbacks. The books are just so…so…meaty. The strong female leads, the supporting characters’ development, the depth of the plot, the vivid imagery he uses to portray a post-apocalyptic America (and not in a way you might expect). All of this grabbed me in a way I didn’t anticipate. It’s not your usual vampire story, if it can be called that at all (and Twilight may as well go cower in a corner). I read the first two books twice before I read the third and, if possible, they were even better the second time around.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Shall we begin?
Book 1 – The Passage
Cronin begins the series in Middle-America. Iowa, to be exact. He introduces our main protagonist, Amy, at the start of her life. Her tragic tale, and the series of events that lead to her eventual kidnapping, military testing, and escape are just an inkling of the drama that threads through the first novel. We learn that the American Government has discovered and cultivated a strain of ‘super virus’ and is, of course, testing it on death row inmates (as you do). Then it all goes horribly wrong.
The supporting characters throughout this part of the series, Agent Brad Wolgast and Sister Lacey, as well as the plethora of smaller side characters, show us the best and worst of humanity. The hope and despair, the greed and selflessness, every contradictory emotion and trait you can imagine, is explored in this part of the story – and that’s just the beginning.
The plot evolves quickly during the course of the book. We learn some new terminology – ‘Year Zero’, sees us introduced to a new world – where virals (remember those pesky death row inmates?) are man’s greatest threat, and humanity is scrabbling to retain some sense of control over the world. We fast-forward 2 years (2 A.V – After Virus), and then shoot even further to 92 A.V… we find ourselves in a colony of survivors, living life the best way they can – and holding some fascinating ideas about life as we know it. The characters introduced during this section of the story are completely new, yet no less integral to the plot. Peter, Alicia, Theo, Michael, Mausami, Sarah, Hollis…their part in the events to come are not immediately obvious – and to be honest, that’s what I love most about a book – not knowing who will be vital to the story line until you’re right in the thick of it.
Before long we are re-introduced to our protagonist, Amy – yes, she’s still around. She opens up a whole series of questions to the direction we understood the book to be going…why is she here? What is so special about her? What part does she play in the way the world is now and how it’s going to turn out? Our new characters are no less intrigued by her, and when their own lives are ripped apart, it pretty quickly becomes apparent that this story hasn’t even begun.
Book 2 – The Twelve
During the course of the second novel, our original characters’ stories repeatedly diverge and combine to bring a diversity to the story line that even I hadn’t anticipated. To me, this book wasn’t as fast paced as the first, however it makes the reader begin to really understand the implications of living life in a world where humanity has a real chance of dying out.
If the first novel was about plot development, this one is all about the characters. We jump backwards and forward through time over the course of the novel – you must pay attention and keep up! However, the connections revealed through the jumps in timeline provide the reader with background information to the characters in a way that really hooks you – you start to really feel for the characters and their fight for survival, rather than just following their journey as a passive observer. They’re on a quest to destroy The Twelve – the original virals, and on this path they come into contact with some fascinating secondary players that make you really appreciate Cronin’s understanding of the human condition.
I found this part of the trilogy so fascinating – the dystopian communities that the characters come into contact with are…scary (supernatural themes aside of course). Not only this, but watching the characters evolve as they suffer hardships and triumphs endears you to them even further. Your heart breaks, you silently scream out for them to understand all the things you know to be true, and you can’t help but turn the page in desperate need of a resolution. You’re left with so many questions – what, if anything, is left of the rest of the world? How can this be the end? What will they do next?
Book 3 – The City of Mirrors
The third and final novel in the trilogy is, yet again, completely different from the others. A focus on the future, it takes us 20 years ahead of the epic final events of The Twelve. You need to re-orient yourselves with the characters and the seemingly mundane lives that they now lead. At first, I felt that Cronin had gone a bit mad – how could he so suddenly jump from the thrilling, fast paced excitement of the previous book to this? I was frustrated at the apparent lack of momentum that this novel had – until we were re-introduced to another seemingly innocuous character, Timothy Fanning.
We soon learn the part he has played in it all – the Zero of Twelve, the original viral – and the part he has yet to play to bring the story to its climax. Sure, the explanation of Fanning’s backstory seemed to drag quite a bit – but in it, I found a certain beauty. We were led to believe throughout the series that the good guys were (mostly) good, and the bad guys were (mostly) bad. But here, we finally met our antagonist in the flesh – no more smoke and mirrors. And we weren’t quite sure – should we hate him? Or feel pity?
Each chapter seems to culminate in a way that makes you think the book is at it’s end – yet, there are pages left. And then you finally get it – the story as you know it has come to its final point, but the story of Earth, of the survival of the human race, has a little bit further to go. We find ourselves in the year 1003 A.V and finally get to find out what happened to the rest of humanity. I loved the way that Cronin explores the end of the book – an historical conference discussing the past events (that we have just finished reading about) woven in between some background narrative nicely tying up the whole epic journey. You feel that you can finally put to rest the characters that you had become so fond of, and close the book with a sense of completion.
During the first book, I found myself holding on to my hat and trying to make sense of it all, however I soon learned to have faith in Cronin’s writing – as the plot started to come full circle and make sense, and as the connections were being made I realised what a genius Cronin is…to have such a story laid out, to give the reader just enough to come to their own conclusions, but still be left guessing slightly – this is what really gripped me. I soon became familiar with how it jumps around from place to place, character to character, and time line to time line. The over-arching themes of survival and desperation, of hope and uncertainty, intersected with people living day to day lives really made sense once I gave myself over to the story. The thing that I loved most about this story was that it’s not entirely improbable….what WOULD happen if a virus was discovered in the South American jungle that altered human life as we know it?
He’s not perfect – there were parts of the story that I felt went on for far too long, and one or two answers that I didn’t feel completely satisfied with. They’re not the kind of books you can read while multi-tasking, but for a relatively new writer, I loved his imagination, his cadence, and how his story stuck with me.
So…that’s my opinion. I can’t recommend the books enough, and I’d love to hear your take on them if you ever should read them!