Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

It happened fast.  Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.
In a not too distant, not inconceivable future, the U.S. government funded a university research trip to South America, essentially looking for the fountain of youth.  What they discovered there they brought back and entrenched in a highly classified laboratory, deep in the mountains of Colorado.  When they were ready, they sent an FBI agent out to recruit human test subjects from death rows across the country: damaged, violent men with no family, no connection to the world outside, men who wouldn't be missed.  When they had gone as far as they could go with these twelve men, they sent the FBI agent out for a little girl to see what they could do to her.

What they had found in South America produced long, seemingly unaging life.  But it also changed the convict test subjects, mutating their bodies, giving them inhuman strength and bloodthirst, granting them psychic powers.  It turned them into vampires.  And when an accident happened at the lab, when one of the twelve test subjects escaped, it only took thirty-two minutes for all hell to break loose, and the other eleven.  And once they reached the outside, they ushered in the apocalypse: killing and feeding and, more importantly, making more "virals" like themselves, passing blood to blood.  The human race - or at least the people of the United States - never had a chance.

One hundred years later, there are only pockets of surviving humans, living in small colonies under strict rules and lights that never go out at night.  But after a century, the machines that power the lights are starting to fail.  When a strange young girl, alone and alive outside in the world, comes within the walls of one Colony in California, a small group of survivors decides to take a stand and try to change the world.

There have been a lot of vampire novels lately (many of which have been reviewed here): The Vampire Academy, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, The Mortal Instruments series, Life Sucks, et cetera, ad nauseam.  The Passage, by Justin Cronin, is not like these books.  These vampires are not sexy or brooding or sparkly or tormented (well, maybe a little tormented).  These vampires make the Salem's Lot bloodsuckers look like  pussycats.  The virals in The Passage are like the vampires in 30 Days of Night, but with less humanity.  They hunt and kill and shred their prey, but are canny enough to recruit and lay traps.  They are scary monsters and they have made their world a scary, scary place.

The coolest thing, however, about this pre- and post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror novel is that it is so well-written.  Cronin is a literary guy who not only has thought through this lengthy, involved story about this detailed, complicated alterna-verse, but can pull it off with intelligent, touching prose.  I read a review that said The Passage won't have enough vampires to please the horror fans and will have too many vampires for the literature fans, but for folks who live in the middle ground will love it.  I'm one of those folks.

*Note:  I also read that this is supposed to be the start of a trilogy.  It was only published last year, so we may have a long time to wait for the next installment.  But another great thing about this book is that it doesn't read like the first volume of a possible trilogy - it is able to stand alone.

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