Six Junes ago, I read Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic thriller, The Passage, and I was blown away. During my read I was amazed by the sheer volume of events and ideas he could write about, as well as how well he could do it. The story had a large cast of characters and it jumps back and forth in time, right up to the edge of confusion, yet he manages to keep all the balls in the air. We come to love his characters and fear for them as virals — humans who have been transformed into vampires by a rampant virus — swarm America’s cities and leave nothing but desolation in their paths. They literally rip the country to shreds, turning it into a wasteland in which few survive. And the ending? Well, it was so good that I was furious with Cronin. He left me with a two-year wait until the next book in the series.
The Twelve arrived a few months late, in the fall of 2012, but in the end that was okay. Instead of picking up where The Passage left off, the sequel tells a different part of the story. It didn’t pack the same whallop, but it was a solid read in which the bloody attacks of the virals were replaced by an equally bloody political climate in their aftermath. How will we survive? Who will lead? Will the virals return? If The Passage was a book about survival in the face of biological monsters, The Twelve was a book about survival in the face of political ones.
Now comes the finale, The City of Mirrors, (Ballantine), which I devoured the way Cronin’s virals devour any human in their path.
Where The Passage was a brilliantly plotted, solidly written thriller, The City of Mirrors is poetry. Again and again, I found myself anxious to read faster, yet equally anxious to take my time and relish the writing. This is a novel that requires focus, that begs for it and deserves it. The writing is sumptuous, the language lovely, even when the action itself is dark and violent. This may appear to be genre fiction, but it’s literature, for while there is the surface action, laced with violence, there is also a brilliant emotional core to all of this.
Like the others, the new novel jumps back and forth in time, deconstructing a breathtaking narrative that spans 1,000 years. We learn about the events that led up to the appearance of the virus, and we also learn about what happens after the human race is all but destroyed, leaving North America human-free, its purple-mountain majesty uninterrupted by, well, us. As in the first two books, the last surviving humans try to make their way through treacherous territory of the sunbaked west, most of the action centered in what used to be Texas and its gulf coast.
Back in a 2010 interview, I asked Cronin about the massive leaps in time he takes. Did he worry that readers wouldn’t go with him? “I think a book needs to be constantly interesting by changing the terms,” he said, “and it’s actually a good thing when a book does something completely unexpected. But you do need to have faith in the writer. That there’s a reason for it. It’s not arbitrary. You’re actually trusting the reader, in a good book, to do a lot of the work.”
The City of Mirrors asks us to do some more of that work. We need to remember the other two books and how different they were, then leap with Cronin into this one, which is different all over again.
In this book we learn about where the virus came from — and why. Like most other events in human history, the impetus was emotional, even innocent. It grew from, of all things, love. All of the violence of the first book, which was considerable, and all the political maneuvering of the second, which was just as bloody, and all the attacks of the third, in which the virals are smarter, even sinister, all brought about by the most basic human emotion. Not to survive, but to love and be loved.
The characters’ relationships here are complex. Old friends return, new friends are made. Throughout, there is a real sense of dread as we wait for the inevitable. When the virals appear, midway through the book, it’s almost a collective exhale: from both the characters and the reader. The viral attacks in this third book are bloody, merciless massacres, and even the most ingenious human defenses are no match.
In The City of Mirrors, Cronin spends a lot of time going way back to the beginning, to the emotional inspiration that led to the virus. It’s a simple coming-of-age story, really. Young Harvard students learning how to make their way in the world. It’s their passions and disappointments that light the path to the virus that ends it all. Toward the book’s end, the plot shoots off into the far distant future, where we get a taste what will become of the human race. The threads of his earlier books are woven together–not neatly, like expertly, with just enough closure to satisfy, yet also enough ambiguity to tantalize. There’s a mystery here, something mystical that remains unexplained.
In the end, Justin Cronin’s magnificent trilogy isn’t about the destruction of humankind. The virals do a lot of bloodletting, but they release and reveal something both deeper and higher. They show us, finally, for what we are: beings who are relentless in our quest for connection, for brother- and sisterhood, and for family. ◊