Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

I described The Passage to my sister as “a long slog” and she thought that was exactly the right word.  This book was billed as THE book to read this summer; it was hyped in the New York Times, NPR, Good Morning America. I really wanted to like this book — nothing like a little light end-of-the world fiction for your summer.

Mostly I picked it up because it was compared to Stephen King’s The Stand.

Now maybe that expectation is part of the problem, but this book was not The Stand.

Of course by now you’ve heard all about this book, but here’s a quick synopsis.  The U.S. government discovers a virus that turns humans into vampires, and it experiments on eleven death-row criminals and a young girl in order to create the ultimate military weapon.  The newly-created vampires grow super-powerful and apocalypse ensues.

I don’t know how it’s possible for a vampire-apocalypse story to be as bloodless as this one, but bloodless it is.  There’s no passion, no love, no raw emotion of any kind.  A good example – when one of the characters is captured by vampires and later rescued, she can’t remember anything of her experience so is not traumatized in any way.  I think that’s a cop-out.

But let me start with the positive: the first third of the book was pretty good, although still no Stand – a good story even if you know what’s coming, and great parallels to some of the political and moral dilemmas we face as a society – medical experimentation, the death penalty, the use of genetics to make people stronger and healthier.  I found the characters of Carter and Wolgast especially interesting.  Carter is an African-American homeless man who is wrongly accused of murdering a white woman who tried to help him.  Wolgast is an agent who has never gotten over the death of his child and the subsequent failure of his marriage.  He agrees to bring death row convicts like Carter to the secret experimentation facility, even though he increasingly realizes the immorality of what the government is doing (and his part in it).

Then the action jumps 92 years into the future, where a few hundred survivors live behind walls, mechanized gates, and armed guards.  This new society is carefully structured so that each person has a specific role and life is all about surviving the attacks of the vampires (or virals, as they are called).  The problem?  Cronin takes FOREVER explaining to the reader how this new society works, what the rules are and who the characters are.

And unfortunately, Cronin introduces a lot of new characters but none of them are half as interesting as the ones in the earlier part of the book.  It’s as if this new society has eliminated individuality, culture, personality – and reading thousands of pages of no-personality characters is just not fun.   Maybe Cronin is making some larger point, say that this is a result of growing up in a world with no media, or where the characters never leave the four walls of the Colony, or because they spend their lives under the constant threat of death.  Either way it was a wretched long slog.

One of the best things about The Stand was not just the believability of a government-created virus that wipes out most of society – it was the characters.  Frannie, Stu, Larry, Harold, Nadine – these are characters in a book I read years and years ago – and yet I still feel like I know them.  King knows it’s not just about the story, but I’m not sure Cronin does.   The Passage would have lived up to the hype if it had characters like that.  Peter, Michael, Theo, Sara, Hollis – by the end I was happy to put the book down and walk away from these people.

It’s a very bad sign when a main character dies and I don’t feel a thing.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat on the subway, on my way to work, crying over a book – it’s a little embarrassing but what can I say, I’m a cryer.

Maybe it’s just me.  There’s already a movie in the works, the book is flying off the shelves, and even Stephen King himself reportedly loves this book.

For me, some of the best parts of the book, outside of the first section, took place in Desert Wells, Nevada.  The characters encounter another Colony of survivors and it raises a lot of great ideas about how different camps of survivors might have developed over 100 years – how many of our current traditions would stay the same, and how many would change entirely? How much of societal rules are based on the qualities of the people who survived?  One camp might be completely militant and another run like a cult.  And in the absence of a formal government, would either structure be able to survive?

The book was in serious need of editing.  Too much travel, coming and going, characters being lost then found and then lost again.  I will say that Cronin pays a lot of attention to detail.  He says in an interview that he’s plotted out every detail that occurs in all three books – and the book reads that way. The ending makes sense and sets up the next book in an interesting way.  Unfortunately I doubt I’ll be reading the sequel.

My next vampire book will be Christopher Moore’s Bloodsucking Fiends.  And there’s always Salems Lot if you’re looking for a good vampire read.

  2 comments for “Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

  1. July 20, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    I’ve heard a lot about this book (who hasn’t?) and want to thank you for saving me from even trying it. I don’t do futuristic sci-fi fantasy, I hate vampires, and any book that long had better have a better plot and set of characters than this one seems to have.

  2. July 21, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    oh. My. This don’t look so good. Yet I heard so much about it? was it overhyped? I might still give it a try though.

    I don’t like it when they compare a book to another title, then you have such high expectations. Only for it to crash.

    btw, thanks for stopping by my blog. WordPress users unite! bwahaahha!

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