Thursday, September 1, 2016

REVIEW | The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin
Publication Year: 2010
Genre: Science Fiction (dystopia), Literary
Series: The Passage (#1)
Awards: NA
Format: Bought from Audible
Narrator: Scott Brick, Abby Craden, Adenrele Ojo

WHY?: This book/series has had a LOT of buzz.  I'm not normally one to chase after the latest big thing but this one won me over because of two things: 1) my best friend recommended it when I was in a reading slump and 2) vampires.  Vampires always win me over.  And best friends too.  

SYNOPSIS:  The book starts by telling the story of how a virus that turns people into vampires got unleashed on the U.S.A.  It then shifts, 100 years into the future to the remnants of humanity that are left after the virus and its victims have done their work, particularly focusing on one isolated outpost in California.  This close, but quickly becoming dysfunctional, community is at a turning point and as a result a few of the residents are forced to brave the wider world and the vampires that still threaten all life.  


For me this was a book that got more and more interesting as it went along.  It initially reminded me a bit of The Stand by Stephen King except that I had almost a complete opposite reaction to each.  I loved the first part of The Stand but lost interest as the book dragged on while with The Passage, I almost put the book down during Part 1 but I'm glad I stuck with it because I got more and more sucked in and engaged as the story progressed.  

What didn't I like about Part 1?  It was interesting enough really.  It's always edifying to see human kind be its own worst enemy;).  However, it felt a little like Cronin had to get his Literary Fiction Writer jollies out before moving on into the more compelling character stories.  I enjoy literary fiction but it does seem like sometimes it is just a contest to see how miserable and unfortunate characters can be written.  There is copious background on all of the characters in this first part and that background is universally devastatingly tragic and violent.  Only 3 of these characters go on to play important but minor parts in the bulk of the book so morbidly dwelling on their misfortunes, felt a little superfluous and indulgent.  

There is so much improvement, however when the book moves into part 2 and fast forwards roughly 100 years into the future.  The characters still have pretty tragic lives but in context it would be weird if they didn't and knowing what the characters have been through is necessary to the development of the plot and relationships.  

The pacing of the plot gets better as well.  It spends a good chunk of time at the isolated fort where most of the main characters spring from but the time and attention is spent well in portraying what society has become, setting up some important mysteries and getting the reader attached to the ,main characters.  Just as the time at the fort starts to drag, we move out of it and the book launches into the third part which is generally the  "road trip" part of the story. 

One thing Cronin does exceptionally well is take pretty standard tired old tropes of fantasy/dystopias and make them burn with life.  The latter half of this book is basically a quest fantasy with prophecies and a chosen one and all the trappings but it doesn't feel overly familiar or overdone.  The vampires themselves are an enigma, created by humans and starting off as people themselves - they are drawn back to where they came from with a human yearning to return home?  Or because it's familiar ground and poses a better chance for hunting?  No one knows.  There are also the mysterious 12 who may have some powers to control vampires and humans alike but because humanity only exists in pockets and communication between outposts doesn't exist, they have become profoundly ignorant and have no way of connecting the dots.  The overall quest that drives the story is philosophically for humanity's survival but mundanely it is about lifting the blinders from their eyes and gaining knowledge.  

The world that Cronin imagines would result from this kind of plague is utterly real and believable.  How completely unprepared we'd be for this kind of disaster, how good sense would deteriorate and nuclear bombs would be used which would have a profound affect on future generations' survival and ability to procreate.  How quickly people would become isolated and as a result be almost thrown back to a pre-era-of-discovery type state where knowledge of anywhere outside of ones 50 mile radius area would disappear along with any curiosity about it.  I liked that no one knew whether the rest of the world was affected by the plague or if it had been effectively limited to the U.S. while everyone else went on like normal. The atmosphere is both scarily vast and also claustrophobic. The trip from California to Texas becomes a massive journey and undertaking.  Basically, Cronin does a great job creating a dystopia that feels real and is fascinating.

And of course, what is always the key for me to love a book, the characters are very well developed.  This is where that literary bent comes in the most.  It burrows deep into the psyche of each of the rotating perspective characters and for me it is what really makes the book worthwhile.  If you like a character driven book with a strong story to boot, you will likely enjoy this book. 

Finally, I listened to the audio version of The Passage and it had a somewhat unique set up.  When I saw the multiple narrators, I thought it would rotate, perhaps with a new narrator for each part.  In fact, Scott Brick reads roughly 90% of the book with the other two narrators just stepping in occasionally for some very specific parts.  It worked fine and Brick is a competent narrator but he is not really my style so I was a little bummed that he did the bulk of the reading.  His style is just a bit too dramatic for my taste but it didn't really have much impact on how I enjoyed the book.

FINAL VERDICT:  The beginning annoyed me a bit but it blossomed into a riveting character driven story with plenty of plot and momentum.  4 out of 5 Stars.

Other Opinions are Available: The Book Smugglers |The Guardian

P.S. If you are wondering about the strong movie rumors that The Book Smugglers mention in their review, here's what Cronin had to say about it recently:
Is there still going to be a movie or TV adaptation of The Passage?

"That’s an interesting question. It was really bought for movies. I was always uncertain about this because I thought, “There’s too many characters here.” It’s a very difficult narrative to unpack and fit into three two-hour movies. So, the studio’s kind of sitting on it for a while and my hope is that it will go to television. Television right now is where all the great storytelling is taking place."
This would be an EPIC TV show.  I am right there with him hoping for it!

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