Vampire books, as you may have noticed, seem to have recently replaced zombie books as All The Rage. I have to confess, though, that I’ve always found vampires kind of lame. I mean, sure, Buffy was awesome, Let the Right One In was brilliant (the film, and also to a lesser extent the novel), but in general, I find vampires a bit on the posh side. Give me a good filthy brain-eater over a blood-sucker, any ol’ day of the week.
That said, when I heard that Justin Cronin, considered a “literary” writer of sorts, had published the first book in a planned vamp series and unleashed a massive bidding war over it, I was definitely intrigued. A friend had an advanced reader’s copy and loaned it to me a few weeks ago, and it was every bit as entertaining as I hoped it would be.
To be completely honest, however, I still found The Passage somewhat dissatisfying overall, and after finishing it, also found myself wondering what all the hoopla was about. I will explain why in a moment.
This 700+ page novel, the first in a proposed trilogy, spends the first 150-or-so pages set in the near future, when acts of terrorism on U.S. soil have increased, the cost of gas has exploded, and people are even more wonky from all the stresses of the world than they are now. When a medical researcher stumbles across a virus in a South American jungle that appears to heal wounds and cure diseases, he thinks he’s come up with the answer to mortality; a bug that heals all bugs: eternal life. But once the military gets wind of its unfortunate side effects — it turns people into super-fast, super-aggressive killing machines — they usurp the project in hopes of creating a force of invincible super-soldiers that might put an end, at last, to war. Go figure.
BRILLIANTLY (<– sarcasm), they decide the best human subjects for testing the virus on are death row inmates. Their reasoning is that nobody will miss them. MY reasoning is that it’s probably not the greatest idea in the world to make sociopaths invincible. As it turns out, I am right about this. It’s a shame I was not consulted first. (Put me on speed dial already, USAMRID.)
The experiment begins with twelve subjects but, as you’d expect only 150 pages into a 700+ page novel, things don’t go as planned. Soon all twelve are on the loose and it’s not much longer before the human population, at least in the U.S. (we don’t know about the rest of the world — yet), has been almost completely wiped out.
Cut fast to a hundred years in the future, where a group of about 90 survivors have built themselves a fortress and managed to keep the infected out by keeping the lights on 24/7 (vampires, as we all know, die in the light; the rest of the usual lore is somewhat refreshingly missing from this novel. Much appreciated, Mr. C.).
Increasing problems at their wind-based power plant threaten that safety measure though, and when it’s determined that the lights are going to go out for good in a few months, a band of seven or so survivors, all close friends, form a posse, leave the fort, and head off into the world to try to find out what else is out there — other fortresses, other survivors, somewhere to move that’s safe, something, anything, anything. Whatever, we’ll take it.
Joining the posse is a little girl named Amy, who had wandered into the fort several weeks prior and bonded strongly with our protagonist, a somewhat dull fellow (sorry, but true) named Peter. Peter takes on the role of Amy’s protector, despite the protestations of Alicia, the top fighter at the fort, and the source of a lot of long-term sexual tension for Peter.
Unbeknownst at first to the group, though, Amy was also exposed to the virus 100 years ago and, as a result, she hasn’t aged a day since. But the other thing she hasn’t done is turn into a monster — hey, what gives, right? It soon becomes clear that Amy has a mystical sort of connection to the original twelve apostles. She’s able, somewhat, both to summon and to control them, a skill Peter soon realizes could be used to take the twelve out, which in turn would neutralize the rest (I wasn’t clear on just how, but it looks like Cronin will have another 1400 pages to do some ‘splaining — I can wait).
It’s a good story, definitely. It’s extremely entertaining and though I found myself a little impatient in the middle, I never got tired of reading it. That said, The Passage has a lot of problems, and many of them were things I would’ve expected a good editor to catch and hammer out. Is this the hazard of too much excitement on the publishing world’s part, I wonder? Nobody wanted to tinker much with such a hot commodity?
Whatever the reason, the first thing I would’ve done was flesh out the beginning. I would’ve liked it if the opening section — that first 150 pages that went lightly into the origin of the virus and the vampires — were much longer. Say, half the book. For one thing, we’re introduced to a bunch of characters I really liked in that section (Agent Wolgast, for example), almost all of whom are gone by page 151. And for another, there’s a whole hundred years missing from the story. I’m sure a lot of very interesting things happened during those hundred years, and I, for one, would like to know what they were.
Additionally, I have to ask: why the fuss, publishing world? The rest of this novel is pretty standard action/adventure stuff; none of this story is terribly original, which was kind of a surprise given all the dramatics. The fortress-type stuff reminded me of things like Waterworld (my apologies), where people have been forced to return to primitive weapons and draconian rules in order to maintain order (for example, in the fort, if you break a rule, you’re thrown out on your ass as a vamp snack, no second chances). The characters were all stereotypes, as well — the tough woman with the secretly soft heart, the mystical little girl who will save the world, the wise old bird who is infuriatingly cryptic, etc. — and their relationships were pretty by-the-book as well. All in all, I felt like I’d seen 99% of this novel 99 times before, which would’ve been fine, really, had the writing been mind-blowingly awesome. But it’s just mediocre, and frequently struck me as clumsy and rushed. This does not bode well for parts two and three.
ALL THAT ASIDE, however, the vampires were super cool, no denying it. They’re ugly monsters who move lightning fast and tear people to shreds before you can say, “Hey, did you hear something?” They were kind of scary, in fact, which is not something I say very often, especially when it comes to novels.
Even better, there’s absolutely nooooooooo sparkling in this book whatsoever. No handsome, troubled creatures of the night, making all the chicks swoon with their maudlin mopings and furrowed brows. There is only uncontrollable blood-thirst with the extremely rare glimpse of something still painfully human underneath. These were good vampires. By which I mean: really, really BAD vampires.
The other thing I liked was that we rarely “see” the vamps to begin with, something I always appreciate in a monster story. All too often, the creatures in these types of tales take front-and-center, their killings too. But it’s far more unnerving when they’re off skulking in the shadows for the readers as well as for the characters, all of us squinting off to the tree line watching for signs of motion. I was glad Cronin seemed to recognize this himself. And I’ll tell you what, there were a few nights when I was up way past my bedtime while reading this book, unwilling to turn the light off until I was at a section not quite so hair-raising — a very good sign in a summer read.
And really, that’s exactly what this book is — a big, fat “beach book.” If you come into it looking for a good time — light entertainment and serious fun — I think you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for here. If you come into it looking for literary writing (no), realistic and intense characters/relationships (not really), or a new, exciting twist on an old story (not so much), though, you will likely find naught but disappointment.
Personally, I can’t wait for book two, and I hope it comes out at about this same time next year, so I have another great summertime week of absolute fun. Vampires won’t eat you if you’re in the sun, after all. Let’s not unleash them in December, Random House, if you don’t mind.
Highly recommended to fans of creature features, definitely, but this is not going to be a book that offers much of interest to general fiction readers (unlike, for example, the film/book Let the Right One In, which I think is a much weightier story that would appeal to literary lovers as well as vampire geeks).
Have you read this one yet? If so, let me know what you thought in the comments? Let’s talk. Especially about that ending. (Note to those who haven’t read it, that means there may be spoilers in the comments, yo!)