OK, I’ll put it right out there: The Passage (Ballantine) is certainly the best read of the summer — and possibly the best read of the year. To all of you who haven’t had the pleasure, don’t believe it when anyone tells you this is another vampire book. Because (a) it’s so very much not. And (b) it’s not “another” anything.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books are not in the same universe as The Passage.
If there’s a vampire novel it has any relationship to, it’s Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire — but it’s not the vampires that make the connection. Rice’s 1976 novel took a character we thought we understood (Dracula) and turned him inside out. She transformed him into something new: two “modern” vampires, one a homosexual blood sucker riddled with guilt and one a passionate, rock-star type (also homosexual) who saw food standing in every pair of shoes. Justin Cronin has done something similar with The Passage: he’s turned the modern techno-thriller inside out. He’s given it a 1,000-year timeline; characters who are distinct, each one crystal clear on the page; and sure, vampires, but they’re not of the Bram Stoker or Anne Rice variety. Cronin’s vampires — called virals — are manufactured, the unfortunate by-product of a government experiment gone horribly wrong.
The virals’ attacks are brutal, ultra-violent, unforgettable. But even so, the virals aren’t really this novel’s bad guys. In a way, they’re victims too. The real bad guys, the scientists whose experiment to create the ultimate military weapon backfired on a global scale, are all dead, killed by their own creation (Frankenstein, anyone?). The core group, a “family” of 12 virals who broke loose and changed the world forever by ending it, supplies half the drama; the other half is created by the survivors left to deal with the new reality imposed by the virals’ behavior.
I think the most remarkable thing about this book is Cronin’s ability to create an entire world that’s both recognizable and alien at the same time. The world of The Passage is one we know intimately, except we really don’t. The people who live in it are people we know, except they really aren’t. And some of the things you’d think they would understand — movies, say, or photographs — they don’t. In other words, our world has ended and theirs has begun. In every way that matters, we are gone. What’s more, everything we take for granted, Cronin has rethought, reimagined and recrafted, like a kick-ass car made purely from spare parts.
While reading The Passage, I found myself thinking about the oil spill in the Gulf. I know, I know, this is a book review, not a news story. But still. I saw creepy parallels between the government that made the virals and British Petroleum: Both tampered with something they didn’t fully understand, and both failed to create reliable fail-safes, should something go wrong. And although I’m jumping the gun a little, both have done a pretty good job of placing large segments of our culture — and certainly our environment — at risk. My point is, in The Passage and in real life today, something small has become something that irrevocably alters our history.
Anyway, The Passage is not a political thriller. It’s a fright-fest with soul, a 775-page exercise in relentless forward motion. Best of all — or worst, depending on your point of view — it’s the first part of a trilogy; the second installment (reportedly called The Twelve) is due in 2012, the third (The City of Mirrors) in 2014.
There is a great deal here that’s captivating. Intense characters whose emotional volume is always dialed up to 11. Set pieces so finely tuned you can actually see them. Turns of plot so surprising you won’t mind having been taken in. The Passage is a nonstop, intelligent story of an apocalypse, and it’s unlike anything you’ve read before. Sure, there are comparisons; I’ve cited some myself. I’ve read many comparisons to The Stand, but even Stephen King is over the moon about The Passage.
Here’s the thing: As I was reading this book, I found myself caught, perplexed by conflicting feelings. I wanted to read and read and read, just to see what would happen next. But at the same time I was desperate to slow the hell down, to prolong the book’s many pleasures. When I finally reached the end, I slowed to a crawl even as the story itself hurtled forward. The subtleties of the final lines left me stunned — and hungry for more. Much more.
The Passage is an original. 2012 has never seemed more distant.