Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: "The Passage" by Justin Cronin

The first “grown-up” book that I can remember reading was Stephen King’s “The Stand” – and maybe for that reason, I’ve always liked post-apocalyptic fiction. And so I was pretty excited when The Beloved gave me a copy of the “The Passage” by Justin Cronin for my birthday.

The premise is pretty close to “The Stand” at the beginning: government lab catastrophe unleashes a plague upon America – not just killing off (mostly) everyone as in its predecessor, but turning people into violent, blood-crazed, super-human “virals”.

The book is really two stories. The first is the riveting tale of the decline of order in the advance of the plague. This is similar to Max Brooks’ “World War Z”, but told in a much more character-driven way. Given the size of the book, you sort of figure that things aren’t going to end well, but the story is told crisply and I freely apply the phrase “page-turner” to this portion of the book.

The story then enters its second phase – nearly 100 years into the future, where a small outpost of what might be the last clutch of humanity in the San Gabriel Mountains tries to keep itself alive (the reader is unaware of how global the plague is/was and whether there are other pockets of civilization, which is really good from the storytelling perspective). This part is more “standard” fare, but Cronin does a good job of introducing characters and creating a detailed and plausible society while still giving you the feeling that something is “up”. Some of the horror elements are particularly well executed.

Aside: It was about this time that I learned that The Passage is the first in a three-part series. Can’t anyone in science-fiction/fantasy/horror write a self-contained book anymore?!??

I never could quite bring myself to care about the 100-year-plus characters as much as I cared about the ones during the collapse – but that may be a numbers game (there are more characters later than earlier). Cronin brings the novel to its end by closing some circles (with one particularly good gut-punch right near the end), but leaves a number of threads open-ended. If I hadn’t learned that this was a part of a series, I would have been totally PO’d – but since I did know, all I have is mild annoyance that I have to wait until the next installment which might not be until 2012. Oof.

4 out of 5 stars

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