Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Passage

The Passage by Justin Cronin
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With the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve, coming out in October this year, I thought it was about time I dusted this off and finished it, since the reason why I got so far and then put it down for so long had really nothing to do with how well I was enjoying it. I was, quite simply, pregnant when I started reading this sometime around late 2010. It seemed like every book I started reading while pregnant (and at one time I counted about 36 books I was "currently reading") was heavy and depressing or sad and tragic - mostly because of my extreme fatigue and all the hormones, I'm sure. I got up to Part VII: The Darklands - or page 495 - before putting the great big heavy thing down and losing the willpower to pick it back up again. Starting it again now, I found I had little trouble remembering most of it, though of course small details and who was who amongst the minor characters were forgotten. The one-and-a-half year gap didn't do any damage to my enjoyment of the story, though.

It begins in the present day - or year 1 as it becomes known as - with a group of scientists working on a top-secret project for the U.S. military (or aided by them, in arms and money). Led by Dr. Jonas Lear, they travel to the jungles of Bolivia on the hunt for a gravesite to exhume in the search for a mystical cure for death. But when the team of scientists and soldiers get close to the site, they are attacked by hundreds of bats and several people are killed, their equipment mostly ruined. The survivors, many of them chewed up and feverish, press on and discover... something.

They bring back a virus, Project NOAH, one they barely even understand, and experiment on twelve death row inmates, convicted murderers, that they have collected from around the country, starting with Giles Babcock. If Dr Lear was looking for an answer to disease, the army is looking to create some superhuman soldiers using these criminals as guinea pigs. Injected with the virus, the men ... change. Mutate. Become distinctly Other, and extremely dangerous. Babcock just hangs in his cell, like a bat. They no longer look human. But there is a thirteenth, a little six-year-old girl called Amy whose mother dropped her off at a nunnery in the care of Sister Lacey and didn't come back. Picked up by the man responsible for "recruiting" the death row inmates, Special Agent Brad Wolgast, she's taken to the hidden facility in the mountains of Oregon and given the virus. In Amy, Dr Lear has his first real success, in terms of his own agenda. Amy does not become like the other twelve. Her appearance doesn't change. She doesn't have a thirst for blood. She's sensitive to light, and doesn't really need to eat.

Meanwhile, the Twelve are no longer content with being kept in cages. With their superhuman strength and speed and their ability to leap so high and far they almost fly, they easily break out. Chaos erupts. The highly contagious virus quickly spreads amongst those that they bite, and within days the entire country is under siege. Part vampire, part zombie, the risen dead have an undying thirst for the living. Agent Wolgast, having developed a fatherly love and protectiveness of Amy, escapes with her. But nowhere is safe. There's nowhere to run to.

Fast forward a hundred years, and we find ourselves in a very changed America. A community of survivors descended from children who had been rescued by the army and brought here to this place in California, goes about its business, with no expectation of change. Surrounded by high walls, floodlit at night, they are perpetual survivors, fending off the "flyers" from all sides. But two things happen to forever upset the tight-knit community: there's a problem with the generators that supply power to the lights that keep the undead away, meaning that soon, they will go out and that will be the end; and one of the men trained to man the wall, Peter, meets a silent girl in the abandoned old shopping mall, a girl called Amy who appears to be about fifteen years old. A hundred year old girl.

I'll leave the summary at that, it's enough to get you started. It's a long and involved story, with a huge cast of characters, but Cronin takes the time to set everything up and really develop the characters - because as with any work of fiction, but especially with the horror/thriller type, you have to care about the characters or you won't care for their struggle to survive.

I loved the originality of the "flyers", as Peter's people call them. They are a kind of vampire-zombie hybrid, with the original twelve something more extreme and monstrous even than that. The origins of the virus is a little vague - it hasn't been revealed what exactly they found and brought back to America. Good horror is often in the details left out and subsequently filled in by your imagination, so using emails from Dr Lear to a peer called Paul for the Bolivia sequence worked really well, even if I was frustrated by the details left out.

Then we have Amy, who's compelling in her quiet, calm presence, her ethereal nature, her Otherness. She holds the key for freeing the undead, but it's knowledge and understanding she has to figure out over time. Perhaps because she's still just a girl, in appearance at least, but it's easy to feel sympathy for her, and compassion, no matter how alien she comes across as. Perhaps, also, it is because she was abandoned by her mother, ostensibly to help her, but still, that's tragic.

The first part, the "present day" part, was incredibly gripping and very exciting. It was a finely choreographed set-up with a deliciously slow-burning suspense, and then it stops. It stops at just the right place, of course, but you get so invested in the story that when you turn to Part IV and discover yourself in a totally different place and time, you feel a bit cheated. This middle section of the book, set in First Colony about 92 years later (the escape of the twelve marked that year as "year zero"), settles into a slower, more gently burning tension: threat is present but like anything that is there every day, it loses its edge. Here we feel Cronin settle into his seat and take the time to establish this new place and its occupants, their new way of living, what they understand and what they're ignorant of. Because from here onwards, they carry the story.

We have Peter, arguably the main character if there is one, who takes on Amy's mission. There's Alisha, another guard and the woman Peter secretly-not-so-secretly loves. Michael, the engineer and technical expert who controls the power and the lights, and Sara, his sister, who works as a nurse - or doctor, if they have such. Young Caleb, taken under Alisha's wing, and Hollis. Pregnant Mausami of the Watch, married to Galen but in love with Peter's older brother Theo, who was recently "taken up": caught by the flyers and given up for dead, or as good as. No longer human, anyway. These are the characters you need to keep track of, because they are the ones who will go with Peter and Amy in search of ... I'll leave that detail for you to discover.

Once this group leaves the now deteriorating safety of the community, the action picks up again and it switches from Fantasy-Horror to a Hollywood-esque adventure playground with many zombie story tropes. That isn't to say it isn't exciting and interesting. Cronin hasn't previously written horror but he writes it well, very well indeed. It reads like an exciting Hollywood movie, but with more meat to its bones. Where I felt that the writing was not as strong as it could have been, was in establishing the characters. Maybe this was because it had such a huge cast, but Cronin tended to fall back on simplistic character markers. Peter's the leader. Alisha's the soldier. Michael's the nerd. Sara's the womanly compassionate one. Maus is the difficult one. Theo's the traumatised one. And so on. Nothing really wrong with it, but because the story is focused on the present, and on surviving, even when you get slower scenes where the characters talk and grow flesh in your mind, they still remain confined by these parameters and don't really go beyond that.

But the story has weight, and moments of sheer fear as well as tears. Yes, a horror book made me cry! Power to you, Cronin, I love that. I would have really appreciated a map of the States, or the relevant portion of it - I'm not familiar with the geography, either natural or manmade, so it was hard to visualise their journeys. I kept feeling surprised at how much was still intact after a hundred years - thinking, surely the trees and plants would have taken over it by now? - only to remember that it's the desert. There were some fabulous realistic details, like the methane from the sewers brewing under Las Vegas, and when they saw abandoned vehicles, or something that catches their eye, they speculate as to what had happened all those years ago. That really bridges the gap in time and almost condenses it, creating even more tension because the threat doubles in size and tangibility.


He was so wrapped up in his thoughts he didn't realize where he was, that he'd reached the top of the ramp. He paused to take a drink. The turbines were out there, somewhere, spinning in the wind that was pushing into his face. All he wanted was to get to the station and lie down in the dark and close his eyes. The dancing specks were worse now, descending through his narrowed field of sight like a glowing snowfall. Something was really wrong. He didn't see how he would be able to continue; someone else would have to take the point. He turned to Tale, who had moved up behind him, saying, "Listen, do you think--"

The space beside him was empty.

He swiveled in his saddle. No one was behind him. Not one rider. Like a giant hand had plucked them, mounts and all, right off the face of the earth.

A wave of bile rose in his throat. "Guys?"

That was when he heard the sound, coming from beneath the overpass. A soft, wet ripping, like sheets of damp paper being torn in half, or the skin being pried off an orange fat with juice. [p.502]




Overall, a superb read, truly scary at times without boring me to tears with zombies all the time. (Am I really the only one who finds zombies really boring?) The horror elements are nicely balanced with the kind of human survival story that draws us in and gets us every time (hence the tears). This is a horror story with the kind of length and depth of detail typically found in epic fantasy, which is probably why it was a win for me. With this one ending on a cliffhanger, I'm definitely reading the next book.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Rachel Loved this novel! Can't wait for the next one.


message 2: by Libby (new) - added it

Libby This has been sitting on my shelf for awhile - your review makes me want to bump it up on the reading list. I actually got the book at an author event. I was very impressed by Justin Cronin and enjoyed meeting him. I'll need to get this one off the shelf with the next one coming out.


message 3: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan I've never been a zombie fan. I actually avoid books where they are characters.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Lisa wrote: "I've never been a zombie fan. I actually avoid books where they are characters."

Me too, Lisa, but these were more original creatures than straight-up zombies, so I'm glad I didn't let that stop me reading it! (Also, I got the book when it was new and either no one else was calling them zombies or I was avoiding reading all of their reviews, so I wasn't even aware of what it was actually about!)


message 5: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Well, I do have it on my to-read shelf. I'll have to see if I'll ever get to it.


message 6: by Sjannon (new)

Sjannon i love your pregnancy lines haha, with both my pregnancies there was NO reading, i could not focus at all and like you hormones were to nuts when i tried, so i went 9 months plus an extra 3 trying to start on many different books and failing over and over again, ugh... but as soon as i start reading again, i am a whirlwind and the books fly through, haha, i am glad i am not the only one who had trouble:)
have a good one!


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