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Thursday, July 15, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Passage

Last week I finished devouring one of this summer's hottest and longest books, The Passage by Justin Cronin.

I loved this book. I was afraid I wouldn't like it. Why? I was afraid it had too much hype and could not possibly live up to it. I was also afraid that although people said it was "literary" genre fiction that it would still be dumbed down. But thankfully I was wrong on all counts.

There are however two key reasons that this book will become one of my favorites. The first is that as a librarian who writes about horror literature, I loved how The Passage straddled the line between pure horror and science fiction so effortlessly. Great timing too because I will be using this novel as an example of the current trend in horror toward pseudo-scientific explanations for the monsters that are out to get us in my book. Look for more there about this issue in the book due sometime in 2011.

The other reason I loved this book is that as a reader and fan of horror I am overjoyed that its publication and popularity marks the rebirth of the evil vampire. I thought they had all gone soft and fallen in love with humans. These vampires are all bad; there is no romance or ambiguity at all here. I for one welcome this shift.

Enough gushing from me; here are the key plot issues that you need to know to help you decide if you want to read The Passage or not. Because I know many of you are still waiting for your name to come up to the top of the holds list, I promise, no spoilers here. However, I do want to warn anyone who is considering reading this novel that it does end with a cliff hanger and the promise of 2 more books. Will they all be 700 pages? I don't know, but be forewarned, once you read The Passage, you are basically committing to at least 1200 more pages to complete the story.

The story begins in the few years BV (before the virus), somewhere around 2016 or so. We see the cryptic discovery of some kind of vicious vampire creature deep in the South American jungle. During this time we also meet 2 FBI agents who are recruited to get death row inmates and bring them to a secure facility in Colorado. It is understood that the 12 inmates that have been procured are being used for a biological experiment that will eventually be made into a bioweapon.  Throughout this part of the story, the point of view skips around so that we see the situation from many different angles.

When the agents are asked to get a child for the experiments, things start to go wrong.  The young girl, Amy, has gotten the perfected version of the virus. While the 12 before her have turned into a vampire like creature, Amy has remained the same, or so it seems. Then all hell breaks loose, the vampires escape, and slowly destroy America as we know it. We leave Amy as she leaves her dying guardian (one of the FBI agents) behind and heads off across the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

We jump to 92 AV (after virus) and see how a band of survivors live in a settlement somewhere in California. I don't want to give away details here because the society Cronin has meticulously constructed is amazing. The bulk of the book follows these survivors as things start to go wrong. Surprise, Amy shows up again, and she is still a kid! A group of these settlers realizes that Amy holds the key to their predicament and they set off on an exciting and dangerous journey to find where she came from.

The rest of the book is a description of how these survivors slowly put the pieces together and figure out what is going on. It seems they have also figured out how to save the world and have destroyed one of the original 12 vampires. However, just as we take a breather at the end of the book, Cronin leaves us with a cliff hanger, literally in the last line of the book

It is both infuriating and  wonderful. You are mad that there is not another book ready yet, but elated that you just read something so engrossing, something that captured your attention like nothing you have read in awhile.  I haven't felt this way about a book since Harry Potter.

For other opinions on The Passage you can read this review from The Daily Beast or see another librarian's perspective over at Blogging For A Good Book.

Appeal: This is an absorbing read that is terrifyingly realistic, and painfully suspenseful (both good, at least to me). Again, this is a completely open-ended book but it is part of a promised trilogy. The Passage is a page-turner despite being 700+ pages. It also has a very detailed frame as Cronin has to explain how the "after virus" North American landscape has changed  and we need learn how their society now functions and looks.

In terms of characters, there are 2 main protagonists, supported by a huge cast of well fleshed out characters. You do need to pay attention as Cronin expects you to remember when a character returns out of nowhere just who they are and why they would be here now, even if it has been 500 pages since you saw that person. Keeping the characters straight is made easier by the fact that Cronin uses third person omniscient and has the point of view shuffle to just about every character at some point.

Cronin also uses fake primary documents in this novel. In the time of 1003 AV there is a conference on the North American Quarantine Period and diary entries from the characters we are following are used in these shorter sections. This helps the reader to believe that there is an ending here somewhere, it's just 900 years away.

Three Words That Describe This Book: terrifying, bio-engineered-vampires, apocalyptic

Readalikes: Cronin owes quite a bit to Stephen King, whose greatest work, The Stand, sets the example for him here. In King's epic novel, we also see a super-virus being accidentally unleashed on the world, killing 99 and 44/100% of the population. While there are no vampires here, it is a remarkably similar story with the band of survivors fighting a classic battle of Good vs. Evil.

Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's Strain Trilogy, beginning with The Strain and continuing later this year with The Fall, is a more scientific and procedural readalike to The Passage. Here a vampire virus with links to WWII is wrecking havoc. While The Passage straddles the line between horror and thriller, The Strain is just over the line into pure thriller territory.

If you liked the The Passage's story of a band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world but could do without the vampire aspects, read The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which I have also talked about here).

For more action with a similar storyline try the Joe Ledger series by Jonathan Maberry beginning with Patient Zero (which I have also reviewed here and here)

As I mentioned in this post, Nate Kenyon's Sparrow Rock is a good option as a readalike too. This would be a more traditional horror novel with an apocalyptic frame. Again, click here for more details.

For a more humorous account of how supernatural creatures caused the end of the world as we know it, there is always World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.

Finally, I am going to go out on a bit of a limb here, but hey, I am a professional and do know what I am talking about.  Enjoyment of The Passage is dependent upon the reader being caught up in the landscape Cronin creates. It is mostly the vast openness of the American West, but not one like we know it at all. I saw many similarities to epic Westerns like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove here. Both are big genre books, that managed to transcend their genre and become huge best-sellers, reaching a very wide audience who normally does not read that genre. This is a great example of a completely different book with a similar feel.

For nonfiction options, arm yourself  by reading The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks or study up on any number of supernatural monsters in THEY BITE!: Endless Cravings of Supernatural Predators by Jonathan Maberry.


Rebecca said...

I loved that last line of the book - it totally jolted me!!

Laurie said...

Your blog is a favorite of mine! I bought this book on the strength of your saying you really liked it. I also got the idea of adding a Shelfari shelf to our library blog from you. I linked to your post about The Passage in my post today at http://brocktonpubliclibrary.blogspot.com/2010/09/passage-by-justin-cronin.html

Unknown said...

Becky have you read The Strain? What did you think if you have? I am reading it now and so far I love it.

Becky said...

I have only skimmed The Strain. It was good, but too much thriller for me to go on to the next 2 in the series. It is a great cross over appeal though for people who like thrillers but want to try horror. The Passage had a lot more atmosphere in my opinion.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with that statement. I just finished it and while I did enjoy it to an extent, it did get a bit corny.