Justin Cronin (enterthepassage.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
Released: 25th October 2012
One [book] that doesn’t appear here is Justin Cronin’s forthcoming novel, The Passage. This epic vampire novel won’t be out until summer 2010, but you’ll want to mark your calendar. Take it from Uncle Stevie, this is your basic don’t-miss reading experience.
At the end of 2009, Stephen King, in his Entertainment Weekly column, The Pop of King, listed his top ten books of the year. He made the passing reference, above, to a book that was still ten months from publication and immediately put it on the radar of its target audience. In this reader’s experience, he wasn’t wrong: The Passage is not to be missed, and prospective readers should in no way be put off by King’s brief description, “epic vampire novel”. There is nothing sparkly here, nothing sexy about the “virals” that grace the book’s pages. The Passage stands, in my humble opinion, as one of the best horror novels of the past decade.
Two years later, Cronin returns to his post-apocalyptic world to pick up the story in the equally-epic The Twelve, the second part of his trilogy. It is nigh on impossible to sum up this complex novel in a few hundred words. Far from attempting it, I’ll touch on the main plot points as a taster of what you can expect between the novel’s beautiful covers.
The bulk of The Twelve’s action takes place five years following the events that brought The Passage to a close. Here we become reacquainted with the survivors of First Colony, who have settled into the new world they have found outside the walls that defined the boundaries of much of their lives. Some have settled down, taken jobs, married; others have followed in Alicia’s footsteps and signed up for the Expeditionary, fighting for the safety of their families and friends. And yet others are no longer in the picture, victims of the attack on Roswell at the end of The Passage, or the passing of time between then and now. One thing hasn’t changed: the desire to hunt down and destroy the remaining members of The Twelve, the death-row inmates who are the original carriers of the virus. But in five years, Alicia’s scouting and Peter’s enthusiasm have failed to find a single one, and the leaders of the Expeditionary are on the verge of giving up.
In Iowa, the town of Fort Powell has been turned into a concentration camp under the leadership of Horace Guilder. Reinhard Heydrich would have been proud, and the comparison is impossible not to make.
The bunks were stacked four high, twenty bunk-lengths in each row, ten rows: eight hundred souls crammed like cargo into a lodge the approximate dimensions of a feed shed. People were rising, jamming their children’s heads into hats , murmuring to themselves, their limbs moving with the heavy docility of livestock as they shambled to the door.
Almost 70,000 souls are imprisoned here, guarded by virals and kept in place by the fact that beyond the city’s walls, they are nothing but fodder. Fort Powell has a purpose – a construction project on the edge of the city – but none of the workers have any idea what that purpose might be.
The Twelve opens up the scope of The Passage and gives us our first proper glimpse of the world outside the walls of First Colony. Entire cities filled with people continue to exist despite the threat of virals beyond the walls. Large reserves of oil found scattered across the country ensure that electricity and motor fuel should not be a problem for the foreseeable future. This is a much different world to the one in which the First Colonists believed they were living. As the chapters cycle through the viewpoints of the original group from the first novel, we begin to see different aspects of this new world, the picture coming together slowly, and in small pieces. The five year gap at first seems a strange approach to take, given the action that brought The Passage to an end, but soon becomes clear as we learn the fates of the individuals involved. It’s a cleverly-constructed narrative that ensures the reader never knows more than they should at any given time.
There are two flashback sections early in the novel. The first takes us back to the Year of Zero, and shows us the world during this transition period through the eyes of a handful of characters both old and new. Bearing in mind that this is a period we have yet only seen at a remove – from the remote cabin where Wolgast and Amy hid – it’s interesting to see how the rest of the world fared. Cronin’s influences are clear here, this section most closely resembling the early parts of King’s The Stand: the formation of groups, friendships, loves; the search for a safe place to set up home. There is also a real-world precedent for some of the descriptions used here, and we get a feeling of post-Katrina New Orleans:
He came to other things in the road. An overturned police car, smashed flat. An ambulance. A dead cat. A lot of houses had ‘X’s spray-painted on their doors, with numbers and letters in the spaces.
Here, though it’s not immediately clear how, we see the origins of the camp at Fort Powell, IA, and those of the Donadio family, a line which leads directly to Alicia.
The second flashback takes us back to a field 18 years prior to the main action, and the abduction of a group of people – mostly children – by what seems to be a well-organised group of virals. Again, it’s not immediately clear how this fits with the rest of the story, but Cronin is building foundations for later revelations.
It was always going to be difficult to follow The Passage with something that packed as least as much – if not, preferably, more – punch. In a world where vampires rule, there is always one major consideration: the food supply. When the predators outnumber the prey, problems start to arise. Cronin takes a clever approach to solving this problem, and The Twelve, as much as anything, is about the consequences of this solution. The characters that we love from The Passage are, for the most part, here and intact; older and, in most cases, wiser. The virals, who for the majority of the first novel stayed mainly in the background, are still not the focus of attention here: they are a problem that needs to be solved, but this is not a vampire novel in the traditional sense; it’s a tale of survival against the odds, a post-apocalyptic fable to match the likes of The Stand and Swan Song. Which is not to say they aren’t a threat, and that they are aren’t creepy – they are, on both counts.
As we approach book’s final third, build-up gives way to action, as all of the pieces begin to fall into place. Here, the purpose of the flashbacks become clear, and pieces that were set up as early as The Passage come into play. The concentration camp theme holds, and the planning phase of the final operation resembles a scene from Escape From Sobibor or The Great Escape. It leads to an action-packed, and somewhat surprising finale, an abrupt end that leaves the reader feeling somehow flat, while leaving no doubt as to where the final book in the trilogy is headed.
Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.