Note to self: not a good idea to read an apocalyptic novel while watching horrifying real-life footage of earthquakes, tsunamis and potential nuclear disaster.
Anxiety over the future of humanity aside, The Passage by Justin Cronin is an engaging and compelling read. It’s kind of Stephen King’s The Stand meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a horror/literary hybrid, delivering the best of both labels.
At 784 pages, it’s definitely an epic, starting slowly and then steadily escalating the tension through the story’s two main time periods (before and after the destruction of civilisation).
The story is set in an alternate (though not entirely unrealistic) not-too-distant future. In early chapters, we get snippets of what the world has become: war is still raging (and America is up to it’s neck in it), the continental US is in lock down, with checkpoints throughout the country, and another hurricane has completely destroyed New Orleans.
The US Army, desperate to find an edge in a seemingly endless war, is playing around with a virus found deep in a South American jungle that promises to create the perfect soldier (when will they learn?).
It’s no surprise that it all goes bad (the virus turns its victims into virtually indestructible blood suckers, and we’re not talking the sexy vampire variety here – think more I Am Legend).
What is a surprise is how Cronin lets this story unfold, with multiple points of view – all of value and all providing rich layers to a meticulously constructed story, and fully fleshed characters.
The first part of The Passage brings together some of the test subjects, mostly death row inmates. But then the mad scientists inexplicably decide to bring in a 10-year-old girl, Amy.
The first line of the novel, gives away that Amy is going to be with us through the journey: "Before she became The Girl From Nowhere – The One Who Walked In, The First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy."
We know early on that Amy is special, and that she’s reacted differently to the virus to the other test subjects, but it takes another chunk of the book before we start find out what it all means.
Fast-forward a century after the test subjects escape and destroy civilisation as we know it, and the setting is the Colony, an outpost of humans who have learned to live in a world overrun with “virals”.
This group thinks it’s the only society left in the US – possibly the world. Harnessing what electricity they can from existing infrastructure, they manage to keep the lights on every night, the only thing keeping them safe from the soulless killers that infest the landscape outside.
With the Colony, Cronin creates a realistic society, complete with its own customs and its own version of human history of the “Time Before”. They don’t fully understand how the virals came to be, and don’t even really care. All that matters is keeping the lights on.
Initially, the jump forward in time left me missing Amy –such a prominent character earlier on – and her relationship to key characters.
But Cronin provides new characters to care about – whose paths will soon cross with Amy (and some other familiar characters) – setting them on a journey that will not only change their lives, but possibly the world.
Cronin makes very effective use of non-linear story-telling, using different narrators and different narration styles (including journal entries being read a millennia later).
He also knows how to build tension. As a myriad of plot threads start to come together in the last third of the book, the action heats up and the tension really kicks in.
There are a few diversions and frustrating plot turns, but they all play a role in building this world and, assumedly, set the scene for future books.
Because, after nearly 800 pages – and a story arc that seemed to be coming to a natural conclusion – The Passage ends without resolving some key plot points.
After staring at the last page, swearing and feeling robbed, I did a quick Google search and was relieved to discover this is only the first of a planned trilogy. A handy thing to know up front, because – in the context of it being a first instalment – The Passage provides enough closure to warrant tackling this book before the next novel is available.
The Passage is a well-written, character-driven novel that works as a post-apocalyptic horror story (there are some pretty gruesome moments, so don’t think Cronin has gone soft on the horror element) and as a study of humanity.