The City of Mirrors - Justin Cronin THE CITY OF MIRRORS

Justin Cronin (enterthepassage.com)

Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£20.00

The Twelve have been defeated and with them, the hordes of virals that sprung from their bloodlines. Amy is gone and Alicia has fled into the wilderness, her infection forcing her to seek isolation. As the years pass, the people of Kerrville grow complacent: they are safe, the virals no longer a threat and they begin to re-inhabit the country, leaving the walls of the city behind for the open country and the chance of a normal life. But Zero, the creature who was once a man named Timothy Fanning, has been biding his time, waiting for the right moment, that moment when the remains of humanity have forgotten to fear the virals, assuring his victory. But the survivors of First Colony have long memories, big dreams and a secret weapon that could well tip the balance in their favour in the epic war that looms on the horizon.

It is almost four years since the second volume of Justin Cronin’s Passage Trilogy, The Twelve, left us on a cliff-hanger. The final volume, The City of Mirrors, picks up eight months after those events, but dwells there only briefly before transporting us over twenty years into the future to a world that is much changed from the one we saw during the earlier volumes. Our band of heroes – the survivors of First Colony and those they picked up along the way – have separated over the years each going their own way, doing their best to find their own place in this new and seemingly viral-free world. Virals haven’t been spotted since the liberation of Homeland and the destruction of The Twelve and, as a result, humanity have largely forgotten their fears and begin to spread throughout the land, shunning the protective city walls that they believe they no longer need.

[Behind every great hatred is a love story.]

In some ways The City of Mirrors is about tying off any loose ends, answering any lingering questions that might remain from The Passage and The Twelve. Foremost of these, of course, is the story behind Timothy Fanning, the first man to be infected by the virus, and who we have therefore known as Zero throughout the series. While The Twelve – the first twelve people that Fanning infected, rapists and murderers all – have been destroyed, Fanning still lives, spending his time in the empty halls of Grand Central Station, reliving the moment of his heartbreak – the catalyst for his eventual infection – again and again for over a century. And it is, as you might expect, a love story, the tale of forbidden love that comes to a sudden and bitter end, driving Timothy Fanning first to murder, and then to the Bolivian jungle where his fate awaited. It’s not the first time in the series that Cronin has taken us inside the head of one of the virals, nor even the first time that we’ve been inside the head of Zero himself, but this visit presents the reader with an interesting challenge even while it helps us to understand the mind-set of this creature who has brought the world to its knees: Cronin presents the human Fanning and, in the process of laying out his tale, makes him a sympathetic and even likeable person, then leaves us to reconcile this before picture with the reality of the after that has driven much of the trilogy’s storyline.

In a very revealing moment that can only be described as soul-destroying, Cronin points to the banality of the destruction of humanity as we now know it, the single lynchpin that defined the moment between life and destruction, and leaves the reader with the overpowering sense that it really is as simple as all that.

[Not an hour would have gone by, her body grown cold in my embrace, before I would have followed her from this world. That, too, was part of my design.]

The City of Mirrors is something of a different beast from the two preceding volumes. For much of its duration, the virals are missing from the storyline and what the characters seem to be seeing – though as readers we know very differently – is a life of comparative normality stretching ahead of them. It’s a testament to Cronin’s skill as a storyteller that he can keep the reader’s interest even while not very much is happening: the characters have grown older and seemingly wiser, though not all content with their lot. While Peter Jaxon – in one of the two lives he seems to be living – is now the president of the Texas Republic and is happy to let people move outside the walls of its capital, Kerrville, Michael Fisher is convinced that there is still trouble ahead and has found a container ship that he is attempting to make seaworthy in order to get himself and as many people as he can recruit off the continent, convinced that the supposed barrier erected around the country’s waters is nothing more than a legend designed to contain the people in times when the technology was still reliable.

As these two individual strands, and the strands of a half-dozen other characters, converge and separate only to converge again at some later point, Cronin teases the reader with hints of what is still to come. Around the halfway point, he catches us unawares, and brings the horror of what the virals are in a single, innocent-seeming sentence:

[As he knelt to look, he heard a high-pitched clicking above his head.]

That clicking is a sound that haunts anyone who has read the earlier volumes and when we hear it here, it comes with a rush of adrenaline and puts us on our guard.

No-one will be disappointed with the epic battle to which the story is inevitably building, but it is the book’s final section that touches the reader the most, and ends the trilogy in some considerable style. From the opening pages of The Passage, we have seen many extracts from “The Book of Twelves” and references to “the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period”. As the trilogy comes to a close, Cronin takes us to the Indo-Australian Republic and introduces us to some of the attendees of the conference, culminating in a beautiful moment that gives the ultimate closure to the story of The Girl From Nowhere and the people who loved her. It is only after the fact that we can stop to realise just how much of the story Cronin must have planned in advance and of the work involved in making everything hang together.

Without a doubt the best of the trilogy, The City of Mirrors provides a satisfying conclusion to the story started over six years ago. I can almost guarantee that readers will come away from this volume with an intense desire to go back to the start and read through to the end. It’s a project I will be undertaking myself in the near future. Justin Cronin is a master storyteller and his post-apocalyptic vision stands alongside the genre’s finest. With The City of Mirrors, a wonderful story in its own right, he also shows an ability to deliver on the promises he made in earlier volumes. An engrossing plot coupled with characters who are at once familiar and strangely changed – whether because of the four years that have passed in real time since we last met them, or because of the twenty years that have passed in the course of the narrative it is difficult to say – brings a fitting close to one of the best pieces of horror fiction produced in the past decade. This is hopefully not the last the genre has heard of Justin Cronin. I can’t help but recommend this – and the preceding two volumes of what can only be described as his masterpiece – unreservedly.

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