Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review: The Passage, by Justin Cronin (2010)

Vampires have captured the imagination of the Western world since at least Bram Stoker's time. Their appeal is in what scares us: the primal fear of night, of bloodletting, of seduction. But what can be said about vampires that hasn't been said a dozen - or a hundred - times before, that has not become cliche, then satire? Bravely wading into the ocean of vampiric lore is Justin Cronin, with The Passage. Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University, reportedly received a $3.75 million advance, and was paid another $1.75 million by director Ridley Scott for the movie rights for this 760-page techno-thriller cum post-apocolyptic dystopia cum vampire story. Does it work? Mostly.

The story starts in the near future, with a military-sponsored scientific expedition to South America to bring back a virus. Most of the first part of the book tells the story of FBI Agent Brad Wolgast who, with his partner, are on assignment for the military to retrieve specific death row inmates and offer them a deal: a reprieve in return for being part of a scientific testing program. Wolgast has delivered eleven so far, and he is on his way to pick up the twelfth, a sweet-natured, simple-minded man named Carter who drowned his employer in a pool. (I wonder if anyof the brains behind the project thought there might be downsides from using psychotic criminals as test subjects?) He begins to wonder about the propriety of his assignment, and that concern only grows during his final assignment: to pick up a six-year-old girl named Amy and deliver her to the military base in Colorado.

Amy's mother, unable to keep a steady job and eking out a living through prostitution, abandoned the child at a convent. Sister Lacey feels an affinity toward the child and nearly thrwarts the efforts of Agent Wolgast and his partner in abducting Amy. Meanwhile, in the Colorado mountains, the twelve subjects are exerting an unhealthy influence over the guards and soldiers, who start to have similar dreams. The "virals," as the twelve are called, break out of the facility. Wolgast manages to spirit Amy away, and the two of them live in a remote mountain area while civilization crumbles, the twelve virals creating more like themselves and the new virals killing wantonly.

Part Two opens 90 years later with a small remnant of humanity in a fortified village in California they dubbed The Colony. The Colony keeps out the virals by maintaining a set of battery-powered lights that run all night, as well as maintaining a highly-disciplined group of watchers trained to kill any virals who may try to attack The Colony. They scavenge parts and supplies from the debris of civilization while trying to keep going a coherent society. Unfortunately, the batteries are failing, no longer keeping a charge the way they once did, and the leaders consider their options. One day, a group from The Colony out scavenging from a local shopping mall, is attacked by virals and is saved by a teenaged girl...named Amy. Is this the same little girl from Part One and, if so, how is she nearly a century old while looking like a teenager? The group returns to The Colony with Amy in tow.

The remainder of the book follows some of the members of The Colony as they try to maintain their way of life, deal with an attack from the virals, then leave to find answers to stopping the virals.

Cronin set himself a huge task and, for the most part, delivers on it. The book is fast-paced and, as one would expect from an English professor, well-written. If the themes are ancient - the quest, the ordinary man who becomes a hero, love blossoms even in difficult times - the execution is novel. I found the ending only partly satisfying, though there are rumored to be two sequels planned (for release in 2012 and 2014).

I'll mention three things I didn't like. First, the virals, while terrifying, never exhibit any sort of intelligence with respect to killing humans. If the virals can track humans moving from one point to the next, and the humans need to take shelter inside well-barricaded structures each night, one would think the virals need only such structures to deny shelter and create easy targets. Similarly, the availability of convenient fuel depots seems at odds with any kind of planning on the part of the virals. (To be fair, Cronin does offer a partial explanation for this late in the book.) Second, the book bogs down a little as it describes life in The Colony for the dozen or so main characters. A little judicious editing might have gone a long way. Third, though we guess early on the source of Amy's influence over the virals, the extent of and the limitations of her powers are never revealed, so some of the scenes have a somewhat ad hoc feeling about them. Still, these are minor issues in what is a genuinely disturbing book.

The Passage is by no means a Steampunk book, though the nod to Stoker's Dracula is at least vaguely Steampunky and the wanderings through the post-apocolyptic landscape have vague echoes of Steampunk. As a (late-) summer read, the thick tome will both entertain and build up arm muscles. Perhaps best of all, the vampires don't glitter and there are no moody teenage girls in sight.


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