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Book Review – The Passage: A Novel by Justin Cronin

August 12, 2010 3 comments

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Book Description:

‘It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.’

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear – of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey – spanning miles and decades – towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger. Its inventive storytelling, masterful prose, and depth of human insight mark it as a crucial and transcendent work of modern fiction.

The hype about The Passage: A Novel by Justin Cronin is tremendous; it’s been called the ‘Book of the Summer’, it’s on pretty much everyone’s ‘To Read’ list, and practically leapfrogged up the New York Times bestseller list… So I guess the main question is: does the book live up to the hype? Well, after burning through the book at lightspeed (over three nights), my answer is a resounding Yes, does it live up to the hype! As in, yes, I would highly recommend this novel to everyone I know. And then some.

The Passage is said to be the first of a trilogy, and indeed, it ends on a cliff-hanger that had me practically gnashing my teeth when I turned the page and realized that was it. Until the sequel. I’m hoping that the author is presently locked in a room and feverishly finishing the second book, but I’m never that lucky (I’m still waiting for George R. R. Martin to release the next book already!) Unfortunately, I have heard that we’re in for a long wait for this one, since Justin Cronin plans to write the follow-up in oh, about the next two years, give or take.

The scope in The Passage is ambitious; the story starts in 2016 when a US army biowarfare experiment on humans (using an “immune-boosting” virus) goes awry, and mutated nocturnal vampire/zombie-like monsters manage to escape. The second part of the book then jumps almost a hundred years into a vampire/zombie-infested apocalyptic future where it seems only a small colony of less than 100 people have survived, but for how long?

With The Passage, Justin Cronin takes on the tired and overdone plot of “The human apocalypse!” and manages to breathe new life into it. And he does this, not by concentrating the action on the horror novel staples of “chaos and carnage”, but by patiently building up individual stories or what Mr Cronin calls ‘journeys’, slowly developing each character until you, the reader, will ‘know‘ them pretty intimately. Justin Cronin has a curiously circuitous writing style though, that may frustrate some readers. He starts out saying one thing, then seems to branch off and get off track, before getting back to the point. I liked his style, since this is how we end up learning the main characters’ back stories, why they act that way, how they may act in the future. But if you bought this book because you love straightforward horror novels with grisly action, you’re going to be waiting until almost the third part of the novel. For example, you might expect the section of the book wherein human society is crumbling under the onslaught of the vampire-zombie-like creatures to be full of bloodshed and gore, but instead, the author draws us away from the action and we follow two characters who hide away and learn about what’s happening second-hand via some newspaper reports.

Justin Cronin is a PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author of serious literary fiction, so I think that while a literary fiction writer is perfectly capable of dabbling in the totally different genre of horror fiction, you can’t take the literary fiction writer away from him. The Passage is very cerebral, and concentrates more on the bonds that define our humanity – love between parents and children, loyalty between brothers and friends, the courage of ordinary men and women, the themes of home and sacrifice and most especially hope. The biggest horrors are the sad, sad mutated vampire/zombies who only ask one thing: “Who am I?” Heartbreaking.

Probably, the only thing that I did not like was the strong supernatural / metaphysical elements introduced, especially with two pivotal characters – the orphan Amy and a mysterious nun Lacey – who have talents beyond the natural even before the biowarfare experiment. There’s also a section in the third part of the book where the narrative veers into ‘Twilight Zone’ area that seemed to me to be at odds with the rest of the book. Justin Cronin has said that he was inspired by his daughter to write this novel – “write a story about a girl who saves the world.” Well, the girl hasn’t saved the world yet, but I can’t wait for book 2 to find out how our ragtag heroes go into war against the monsters.

The Passage by Justin Cronin is available on Amazon as a Kindle Edition ($9.99), Hardcover ($15.42) and Audio CD ($29.70). Best price I found today is at Borders ($6.29). Everyone else offers it at $9.99 (Sony eBook Store, Barnes & Noble, Kobo).

ETA: I’ve embedded an excerpt provided by Random House on the next page!

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