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The Passage

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

The Passage

"The Passage" by Justin Cronin
Joshua Chaplinsky
It's the end of the world as we know it, in this mammoth post-apocalyptic vampire thriller.

It's already been referenced ad nauseum, so I will refrain from making any lazy Twilight comparisons in this review. Those sparkly bastards are too ingrained in the current zeitgeist as it is. Equally as unhelpful is flaccid hyperbole, ready-made blurbs along the lines of, "this ain't your momma's vampire novel." Because The Passage barely qualifies as a vampire novel to begin with. This works in its favor, more often than not, helping set it apart from the rest of the haematophilic pack. Cronin hasn't so much reinvented the genre as liberally borrowed from it, picking and choosing the perfect combination of fresh and familiar. The result? The successful synthesis of bound and jacketed mass appeal.

The Passage is a post-apocalyptic epic in the tradition of the post-apocalyptic epics of Stephen King. A story of militarism and science gone awry, in which the world ends not with a whimper, but with a plague of soulless infected. Like King, it tends towards the bloated at times, and there are too many characters to summarize here. Most important is Amy Bellafonte, a young girl "acquisitioned" as a test subject for the government's not-so-tentative foray into the super soldier racket. Amy seems to be psychic, as children in these stories often are, which could explain why the government wants her so bad (or does it?) But instead of soldiers, the government winds up with virals- glow in the dark super-humans with a collective mind and a thirst for blood. Naturally, the virals escape and wreak havoc on humanity.

And that's where the story really begins. After 200 pages of setup detailing the beginning of the end, Cronin hits the reset button and The Passage jumps 100 years into the future. It's jarring, even a little frustrating, but with 500 pages to go, you get over it quickly. We pick up with First Colony, the last remaining outpost of human civilization in a world overrun by virals. There is civil unrest, and the batteries that power their protective lights are dying. These events coincide with the appearance of a mysterious visitor, the first human contact in decades, and the discovery of an ancient military transmission. A small band of colonists set out in search of the signal's source, in the hopes of finding other survivors and saving their society.

What we have here is the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster- meaning it isn't very literary at all. The Passage is more akin to the aforementioned genre master, King, and even the epic fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien. Cronin's previous work consisted of two understated character studies, so this new direction could be viewed as either a pallet cleansing change of pace or a swing for the money fences, depending on your mood. But despite causing a tsunami of cash by cannonballing into the pool of mass market fiction, Cronin hasn't forgotten the importance of good characters. He has crafted a large number of them here, with varying degrees of depth, and juggles them expertly. When the action fails to excite, it is the characters that keep the reader reading and the story going.

Because once the story settles in and the setup has been set, The Passage becomes rather, well... conventional. For all the talk of reinvention, the story moves in familiar spheres. Compared to Cormac McCarthy's vision of the end, the wasteland of The Passage doesn't seem so bad. I'll take glow in the dark vampires over hillbilly cannibals any day. Which brings me to another point. Not to turn this into a battle of disparate dystopian novels with similar names, but the Father and Son in The Road go for days, even weeks, with nothing to eat but a few seeds. You can actually feel your own stomach shrinking, cinching your belt in anticipation of the next morsel. But in The Passage, the expedition always seems to find what they need in the nick of time, whether it be food or water or vampire-proof shelter. There isn't any real element of danger.

In its defense, for an 800 page novel, The Passage reads like a breeze. A hot, dusty breeze. That, in itself, is an accomplishment.  I'm not dying to read two more installments, and probably wouldn't spring for them if I wasn't sent review copies, but it would be an easy world to slip back into. Like the recent Millennium Trilogy, this is smarter than your a-ver-age bestseller. It's perfect for adults who don't read a lot that are ready to graduate from Harry Potter novels. Literary snobs need not apply. If it sounds like I'm being slightly snobby, it's because I have a word count to meet and I don't want to heap disingenuous praise to fill space.

This is the right book for the right person. If you are looking for an engrossing beach novel that doesn't read like it was written by a lawyer or a housewife, you are that person. If you like a little genre in your fiction, this is for you. If you want to read a vampire novel that wasn't written by Anne Rice and your friends won't laugh at, then this is your book. The Passage is a solid piece of entertainment that lots of people are going to love. From a statistical standpoint, chances are you'll be one of them.