Thursday, July 28, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Passage

Well, it's been about four months since my last post. Nothing inspiring to write about, I guess. I spent enough time reading this almost-800-page book, though, so I figured it was at least worth a mention. "The Passage" by Justin Cronin has been out for quite a while, and everything I had read about it was pretty much anointing it the book of the decade, or something close. I'd probably stop short of that, although Cronin is certainly a talented writer.

"The Passage" is presented as the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that tells the story of a mystical girl named Amy. Why you can't tell an entire story in 780-something pages is beyond me, but apparently, there must be a reason. The strengths of the book are that Cronin definitely shows his prowess as an author, particularly when describing death, despair, and loneliness (of which there is much...the setting being post-apocalyptic and all), and also that Amy, around five years old when the story begins, is a highly sympathetic character. The main gripe I have with the book is that, for a central character, she barely appears in the book at all. To be more accurate, she's referred to or is present in many scenes, but for reasons I won't explain so as not to give away too many details, she isn't doing anything in the lion's share of those scenes. There is a whole chunk of the middle of the book in which she isn't even there at all, however. So, while I cared about Amy for the first 200 or so pages, my attention waned after that.

"The Passage" tells the story of how the United States (and perhaps the's never made clear), is overrun with a horrific virus that has turned a vast majority of the population into bloodthirsty, vampiric creatures - not of the Twilight ilk, for sure, nothing romantic about the "virals" as they're called. The surviving humans are scattered across the country, condemned to live fearful existences within the walls of colonies where they can be protected from the dangers lurking outside. They're so isolated that they pretty much don't know if anyone else outside their walls still lives. The beginning of the book makes passing reference to how the outbreak all began (a doctor conducting experiments, trying to harness the virus as a cure for disease and aging), how the U.S. government and military gets involved (securing a number of death row inmates as the first human test subjects, leading to them becoming the first "virals"), and introduces us to Amy, who is also virtually kidnapped by the government and subjected to testing, although the virus seems to have an altogether different effect on her. One of the other main problems with the narrative is that it shifts the action from five to ten years (I was confused as to which it was) prior to the beginning of the story, to 92 years, and in a roundabout way, also 1,003 years forward. The circumstances surrounding the beginning of the experiments (that's the five to ten years prior part) are never fully explained, with the time shift and description of what was happening then becoming very jarring to the reader (at least to me). It was never clarified how or why the government inserted itself into this situation, or how they knew there was anything special about Amy.

After the first 200 or so pages, the narrative suddenly flashes 92 years into the future, and it's at this point where all reference to Amy abruptly disappears. We're then introduced to the first of the aforementioned colonies of survivors, located somewhere in California. The problem is, there are so many people living there, that it's really difficult to grow attached to any of the characters. And it was a bit unnerving to suddenly have to focus on a slew of new main characters this deep into the book. For about the next 300 pages, I really didn't care about anything that was happening, and that's a pretty long stretch of boredom when you're reading a novel. It wasn't until a seemingly un-aged Amy reappears and comes into contact with the colony, and a handful of the inhabitants decide to venture into the wilderness with her in tow, that things really begin to get compelling again. They're forced to live off the land, and seek shelter, food and weapons wherever and however possible, all while fighting off the lurking virals. They've discovered Amy's secret...that she has remained a young girl for almost a century, and they've intercepted a radio transmission passing through a chip that the government had implanted in her neck during the long ago experiments. That message makes their goal to return Amy to the site of those experiments in Telluride, Colorado. It's a dramatic and intriguing journey, to say the least. But I found the anticipation to be much more rewarding than the ultimate payoff. Once they arrive in Colorado, and get their hands on the original doctor's files, they don't seem to learn any more than what we, the readers, already knew. I was expecting some kind of big reveal regarding how Amy got the way she was, why she was chosen for the experiments, why they didn't affect her the same way as they did the virals, and most of all, why they were supposed to bring her back. Also, the killing off of one of the central bad guys (the head viral, I guess you could call him), was completely unsatisfying. This is a mistake that many Hollywood films make as well...they don't know how to stage the climactic battle scenes. Considering how adept Cronin was at describing other characters' deaths in vivid, haunting detail, I was surprised that he fell flat at this critical moment.

At various interludes in the story, we are taken to the year 1,003 A.V. (I'm assuming "After Virus" - another thing that is never made clear). There is no actual descriptive action taking place in these chapters; the headings just reference the date and some sort of educational conference in Australia, with the text comprised of passages from the writings of two of the characters whom we know from the California colony in the year 92 A.V. So, obviously the world has moved on from the virus, and people are studying the events of all those years ago. It makes for an interesting narrative tool, and lays the groundwork for a somewhat stunning, book-ending cliffhanger. I guess I should have seen that coming, knowing there were more books in the series.

All in all, "The Passage" was compelling enough for me to want to read the next installment. I still can't get over the fact, however, that the postscript states that "The story of Amy continues in 'The Twelve' coming in 2012," when this first book really wasn't much of a story of Amy to begin with. I mean, in spirit it was, because everything that happened is somehow tied to her, but so little of the actual ACTION of the story directly involves her. I hope we get to know her a lot better in "The Twelve."


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