The Unapologetic Geek

(Open Salon Version)

E. Magill

E. Magill
Location
United States
Birthday
November 05
Bio
E. Magill is an award-winning, though bitterly unpublished, science-fiction novelist, futurist, and entertainment junkie. Learn more about him at www.emagill.com

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Editor’s Pick
JUNE 8, 2010 11:54AM

Open Salon Reading Club Review: The Passage

Rate: 6 Flag

"It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born."

The Passage - US cover

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Something has gone terribly wrong at a secret government facility where blood-chilling experiments were being conducted on death-row inmates. The inmates--transformed into horrific beasts that are part-vampire, part-zombie--have escaped, spreading a plague of death and destruction across the entire continent. Generations after the horrible night that started it all, a small group of survivors seeks to unlock the riddle of what happened and find a way to prevent extinction. As they struggle to stay alive, they are visited by an enigmatic girl who appears to be a hundred years old and who may just hold the key to everything.

This is Justin Cronin's The Passage, a book so epic and engaging that it has already become a huge international success story, even though it is only being released in stores today. This novel is certainly a change for Cronin, whose previous works are literary fiction and not the obvious genre fiction of a post-apocalyptic vampire tale. However, Cronin brings all of his seriousness and dexterity of words to bear, lending The Passage a surprising heft and realism that defies the fantastic--at times almost ridiculous--nature of the story.

From the description above, it might seem that this story is a tired sci-fi/horror cliché only a fanboy could love, but there's far more here than meets the eye. Cronin cleverly weaves a tale that can easily be compared to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, or at least a dozen other masterful genre novelists, and that should be taken as a compliment. However, he takes great care with his characters and the world around them to craft something that is emotional and poignant without feeling like something you've read before.

Justin Cronin

He's also an English professor

Coming in it at an astounding 766 pages, The Passage isn't a quick read. The format of the story refuses to allow you to get a foothold on it before it rips the carpet out from under you by switching up the narrative, not once, but twice. There are also lots of characters to keep track of, including several that only last a few chapters. In addition to all of that, the universe is impossibly deep, especially during the post-apocalyptic segments, with plenty of ideas and jargon to keep up with. Cronin has put so much thought into every detail of his world that you will spend most of the book trying to keep up, and for that reason, this is not your typical pulp.

And yes, there are vampires. While vampires may seem completely tapped as a genre, with True Blood and Twilight beating that dead horse into the ground with vigor, Cronin's vampires are as atypical as his storytelling. Without spoiling too much, the vampires (going by several different names, including "virals" and "smokes") are a clever blend of myth and beast, containing few supernatural qualities aside from telepathy. This makes them seem more like acrobatic, fanged zombies than vampires, and for the purposes of the novel, which is primarily about survival, that makes sense.

Still, Cronin does get carried away from time to time. Some of his action beats are over-the-top to the point of being silly (a certain sequence involving a train comes to mind), and he does occasionally get lost in moments that can seem terribly irrelevant. These two minor complaints combine to form a book that can seem a little jarring and uneven, occasionally moving too quickly and too slowly at the same time. It also gets tiresome reading huge sections that focus on the intricate details of new characters, never knowing which characters are going to persist and which are going to be unceremoniously slaughtered as soon as you can get a handle on them. In the end, it does feel like the novel could have been a bit shorter.

Ridley Scott

Film rights were sold to Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions, meaning a film version has a 67% chance of starring Russell Crowe

Additionally, Cronin's literary style does, every once in a while, betray him. For the most part, his writing is mesmerizing, even beautiful, but sometimes, he latches on to a sloppy metaphor and unwisely stretches it across multiple, exhausting paragraphs. Still, his dialogue is spot-on, which not only separates the characters but gives each of them a unique-sounding voice.

He is also adept at point-of-view. Throughout the novel, the point of view meanders through dozens of different characters, but no two characters have the same perception of events or attitudes towards them. This makes his characters full-fledged, three-dimensional human beings and not the cookie-cutter stereotypes he could have easily fallen back on. There are soldiers, scientists, nuns, engineers, and leaders, but they are like the vampires in that they refuse to be cornered into being cliché.

This is why The Passage is worth your time. While the story may seem like standard genre fluff, Cronin has created a novel that is breathtakingly original. It can be compared to everything from Shakespeare to Mad Max, and that only speaks to how hard it is to nail down exactly what it is that Cronin has so deftly accomplished. I, for one, can't wait to read the next installment. Oh, did I forget to mention that this is only the first book in a series?

FINAL SCORE:

While certainly not perfect, this epic adventure is both fun and poignant, a must-read that you will be thinking about long after the final page is turned.

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Comments

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I have never been a big fan of the sci-fi genre. But your review makes the story itself seem impressive. Barnes and Noble, here I come! R
I just got it today. Looking forward to a fun fat read -- and to dishing in on the Salon.com reading group. I'll look out for the problems you mentioned -- maybe I can seem a little smarter than I am when i point them out ...
So it is finally coming out! I met Justin Cronin once at a writer's conference and we have some mutual friends. I also really loved "Mary and O'Neil" and "The Summer Guest." So when I heard afew years ago he was writing a vampire trilogy, I was like, "What?" And then the "Twilight" and "True Blood" phenomena came along and I wondered if Justin had missed the boat. But it sounds like he has something very different and original here, and may attract a wide audience. Thanks for this review.
More power to anyone who can make vampires fresh and original.
Libmomrn: Worry not, this book definitely doesn't feel like sci-fi. Though, as a sci-fi writer, I must express my sadness that you are not a fan of the genre. :)
Steven Axelrod: Beware. I'll be part of the discussion too. But yes, it is definitely a "fun fat read."
Faith Paulsen: Awesome! I never meet anybody cool at my writer's conferences. And you're welcome.
Nick Leshi: Agreed completely. I didn't honestly believe it could be done anymore until I read this book.
LC Neal: You're quite welcome! It was almost as fun to review it as it was to read it.
It's supposed to come tomorrow. I can't WAIT!
I've also heard good buzz on another different type of vampire novel:

Blood Oath; The President's Vampire

Sounds fun, to say the least. It's one of a trilogy, as well, and I can envision, just from what I've read, a great set of movies. (But please, no Matt Damon. I like the kid, but we need someone... darker.)


http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2010/05/28/book-report-blood-oath-the-presidents-vampire/
Sounds interesting.
I love sci- fi thanks for the book review I will be looking for it.
Sold. Excellent review - I've got my copy on order now at Amazon. :)