I finished reading the collection of behemoth tomes that make up The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin, ending with City of Mirrors yesterday. It was a bit of a rushed read – I’d been meaning to start on them for awhile now but got sidetracked by various other books on my backlog plus new releases I’d been waiting for, and just a couple of weeks ago I realized that the author would be doing a signing and Q&A session at a local bookshop here during his Australian tour. So, having sent my RSVP before they ran out of space, I plowed through the three books in rapid order.
They were good. They were very good. I can see why some friends have been trying to get me to read them, and I can see why Stephen King has praised them up and down.
It feels a bit cheap to compare novels to The Stand. The Stand is one of my absolute favorite pieces of literature ever. I know that King hates when people say that, because it’s like telling him “your best stuff was when you were so stoned you didn’t know where you were, and you haven’t approached that quality of work since,” but by god that story just works perfectly. The exponential decay of human civilization, death and suffering on what grows to be an international scale all stemming back to one viral outbreak, the story of survivors buoyed up by faith to hold out while evil destroys itself, it clicks together perfectly.
Cronin almost takes it a step further. Unlike King, where he has it broken down into neat pieces of pre- and post-apocalyptic imagery, Cronin kind of bounces back and forth with each of the three books taking part in the past and part in the future, and I can’t imagine it working so well in any other story. At first I was afraid it would be a little bit hokey and jarring, but instead it was a great way to set up later reveals and plot twists that you can’t see coming but can go back and read the buildup for, so there’s a feeling of internal consistency within the setting. That adds a weight to it, it isn’t just a Mad Max-esque wasteland trek where we don’t really care about what came before, nor is it a story lingering in the past at the expense of the present plot. It balances between the two.
If I didn’t compare it to The Stand, I’d say it’s like some insane bastard blend of The Strain, On the Beach and Threads.
I don’t want to get too in-depth and spoil anything because I truly enjoyed all the twists and revelations of this series, but at its core the story is about faith and people coming together in the face of overwhelming adversity. The vampires of the piece are tragic, with shattered remnants of their past selves caught inside of twisted biological machines that can’t help but violently slaughter everything they see in their search for blood. They’re villains perpetually on the edge of starvation, and unable to take their own lives unless commanded to do so by one of the progenitors. Trapped for eternity as shock troopers against their own loved ones, in bodies that go through some horrific changes. I appreciate that a lot. I love vampires and seeing the absolute glut of them over the last decade or so hasn’t diminished that, just made it harder to find good stories about them buried in the garbage.
Against them we get a fairly disparate cast of characters ranging from the surviving descendants of military enclaves who have retaken burnt out cities and live under relatively benevolent martial law at all times, to forgotten FEMA bunkers populated by the very few civilians who got away and now take all their orders from ancient, disintegrating manuals that have become as much mythology as instruction. Between these camps where are vast swathes of wilderness where to step into the shadows is to die, where old log cabins might contain refuge or terror, and where rusting cars form vast centipedes stuffed full of mummified corpses. It’s bleak and terrible and draining to read, but in exactly the way I crave from apocalypse fiction.
And it’s not all bad, either! Tying these elements together is the journey of a young girl, Amy, who was infected with a variant of the virus for reasons unknown and who has managed to gain many of the vampiric strengths without the accompanying bloodlust or deformities. She is simply incredibly slow-aging and her presence does not provoke her cousins to attack like normal humans do, allowing her to wander the wastelands in search of purpose. She’s a great messiah figure because she doesn’t know that she is one, and she constantly questions herself and what she’s doing and what kind of losses are acceptable to let her fulfill this mad quest she was set upon before she even turned seven. The cast of characters around her is large enough that anyone can die at any time, but intimate enough that you feel every death and every traumatic injury inflicted on them, because you get to know them as people as much as her disciples, acolytes and protectors. Actually, there’s another story it reminds me of, a much darker and grimier version of Children of Men. With some of The Road mixed in too.
I don’t use the words acolytes or disciples lightly, either. There’s real religious fire in the narrative prose. A good portion of the story is written like a bible story, or non-poetic translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The characters have not only their given names but their titles as they will come to be known later on, when they’ve faded into myth. Alicia of the Blades. Peter, the Man of Days. Sara the Healer. There are titles for characters and events that will send a shiver down your spine the first time you read them, before you even know what they are. Like reading a historical archive piece about some terrible massacre after spending hours getting to know all the people involved in it, including their thoughts, hopes and dreams. I’m really looking forward to asking the author tonight whether he had these names and titles in mind from the beginning or if he wrote the events and then named them later.
If I had a single complaint about the series, if there was one thing that played with my suspension of disbelief… The original program from the flashbacks and the starting point to the whole apocalypse. As in, taking a bunch of violent death row inmates and performing human experimentation on them to turn them into unkillable murder machines who can rip through steel blast doors and tear people in half without breaking a sweat, and expecting it to end up any other way? Granted, Legacy of Ashes is an annual read of mine and creating vampiric commandos is probably something the CIA would actually do if they thought they could get away with it, but still.
Whew. That was a lot of words. Fitting for having just read a lot of words, jumping right from The Dark Tower into another sprawling epic. I’m actually looking forward to reading some shorter novels and novellas to let my brain rest. I currently have An Accident of Stars, The Last Days of New Paris, Ghost Talkers, Spiderlight and The Fisherman staring up at me from my kindle, clamoring for attention. Expect to see some recommendations out of that lineup in the future as I chug along through. Also some more writing on actual writing, because I have been doing that in the background here, just not talking about it very much. Turns out nightmarish road trip fiction is like high octane fuel for my brain.