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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Trade paperback cover (US)
This book is one big delicious tease. If you're looking for a long book to curl up with this fall/winter, this baby weighs in at 775 pages and just might do the trick if you're looking for an epic novel of struggle and survival.

Yes, there are vampire-like 'humans,' but they are viscous and violent, not studs in the mood for love.

The book is broken into 11 sections, 74 chapters, and a postscript. The first two sections tell the story of Agent Wolgast, a little girl named Amy, and a top secret military experiment that is showing signs of strain. Together these two sections make up the first 246 pages of the book and could stand as a novel by themselves.

I really enjoyed the characters in these early sections and was at first disappointed to find that new characters took over the third section. I eventually got into the new characters as well, but I didn't become as emotionally attached to any of them as I had to Wolgast and Amy. I've been thinking about my reaction and can see how the various and ever-changing circumstances of the characters impacted me emotionally as a reader.

In these first two sections, Wolgast and Amy are in their own world for the most part. Although they are vulnerable, they are, in some ways safer. It's physically safer for them and emotionally safer for the reader. It's their normalcy in isolation, their existence in a world that we understand, and a known sense of suspense (Will the vampires get them or not?) that helps the reader bond with them.

Hardcover (US)
With each subsequent section, more characters are introduced, the geographic terrain covered expands, and the action speeds up. With more and more characters being further away from places of safety and taking the reader into a more foreign existence, there are more chances for people to die. It makes it harder to become emotionally attached to others in this world. And so perhaps the reading experience of not feeling as emotionally attached to later characters actually mimics what it's like to live in such a world. Does that make sense? Or am I making an excuse for later characters that aren't, perhaps, as well-written?

There's eventually a lot of back-and-forth between various groups of characters in different locations. In a less engaging or less well-written novel such back-and-forth can annoy me and seem like disorganization or sloppy writing. I've talked with a few people who've read the novel and at least one thought it broke down and turned into a mess at the half-way point. But I found myself happily turning the page into each new section and wondering if I'd find old characters or new characters or some ginormous new twist in the plot. I think some readers might miss the safety of a straightforward narrative and so perhaps it boils down to personal taste and/or what one is in the mood for at the time.

UK cover
This book is part of a proposed trilogy and I had that in mind while I read; I wondered which characters, places, or ideas will be pick up in subsequent books. There are tantalizing clues dropped and statements made about someone or something that made me want to know more NOW. Characters may say things, but Cronin also uses newspaper clippings, signs, journal entries, and proceedings from conferences about North American that take place in the future to provide information and to wet the reader's appetite for more.

I think of this book as more along the lines of Stephen King's The Stand rather than as a vampire novel per se. Granted, I read The Stand over twenty-five years ago, but I remember the feeling that it gave me and it's that feeling that came to mind while reading The Passage. I appreciate the way in which Cronin incorporated Bram Stoker's Dracula in a meaningful way, beyond the obligatory nod.

Book two in this trilogy, The Twelve, is coming out sometime in 2012. Oh, and of course there's a movie in the works. That's rumored to come out in 2013.

The Passage
Justin Cronin
NY: Ballantine Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-345-50497-5
Source: bought it

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