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The Passage by Justin Cronin
4.5
Book Name: The Passage
Author: John Cronin
Publisher(s): Orion
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Horror / Science Fiction / Literary Fiction
Release Date: June 8, 2010

I wasn’t expecting much with this one. Sure, I’d read several reviews that glowed enough to light a room – even the posh critics, those who turn their nose up at any form of genre fiction, expressed a high opinion – but that only served to put me off. Yeah, another literary author has turned his hand to sci-fi, but this time he’s undoubtedly ripped off Stephen King’s The Stand and used the idea to express his high-brow opinions about the meaning of life. It’ll be rubbish, but when part of a cheap deal in a supermarket, why not?

So, I opened the book (at over 900 pages, it would make a decent doorstop if nothing else) and readied myself for disappointment. Here’s the opening line:

“Before she became the Girl From Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.”

Girl From Nowhere? Who lived a thousand years? I was expecting 28 Days Later, not centuries. Damn it, I was hooked instantly; perhaps there was more to this author than meets the eye.

I’m going to talk about the plot – not too much – but if you want to keep everything about The Passage under wraps until you’ve read it, scroll down to look at the score I’ve given. Then read the book, and enjoy.

The book begins with background on Amy’s upbringing, pages that read almost like a police report. Amy’s mother leaves her daughter with a group of nuns and is never seen again. FBI Agent Brad Wolgast enters the tale, offering death row inmate Anthony Carter an offer he can’t refuse. As Carter is transported north to become the latest subject in a secret experiment, Wolgast is given his next assignment – find Amy. He does so, but begins to question his employers and absconds with Amy. The chase is on…

It’s this early part of the book that, for me, draws the reader in. I was a big fan of Dean Koontz back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when he added supernatural twists to his thrillers, and this is very reminiscent of Koontz’s better novels. Justin Cronin embeds his characters with warmth and sympathy – even Anthony Carter is a pitiable, misunderstood man – and, this being fiction, it’s inevitable that something will go wrong. Being genre fiction, it’s a big something. Put simply, the experiment is to create a ‘super-soldier’ imbued with massive strength and endurance. This is turned on his head and creatures known as Virals are the end result. They escape their captivity, and these vampire-type creatures spread their plague across the world. And that’s only in the first third of the novel, before it moves forward almost 100 years.

It’s a massive leap, but one that fits in perfectly. We’re introduced to a brand new set of characters (after all, the others are dead, aren’t they?), men and women who can’t remember a world where the Virals didn’t attack each and every night. A walled community has been setup, but there are those who wish to leave and search for other survivors, even though no one has been heard from in a generation. Given the opening line, it’s no surprise that Amy returns, although who and what she is remains both mystery and revelation. Linking this transition is an excerpt from a diary, an old woman recalling the day she was evacuated from her home city. Again, this worked very well, giving the events a deeper, human touch; we’re reminded that although this is happening across the world, it is individuals who are affected. Contrast this to an evacuation notice, showing the cold practicalities of it all.

The remainder of the novel tells the story of a particular group of survivors, their day to day existence shattered by the arrival of… Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, other than it is very good. There are moments that threaten to fall into cliché – look, here’s a squad of military survivors – but these are deftly turned on their heads to create something special.

You’d be right in thinking I liked this book. I sailed effortlessly through almost 1000 pages, and I can honestly say there wasn’t a dull moment. Justin Cronin is a very good writer, and has populated The Passage with characters that the reader genuinely cares about, in situations filled with tension and excitement. In its quieter moments, the novel is moving and thought-provoking; Cronin subtly weaves emotion into the story, not with the heavy-handed approach I’d feared.

Topping all of this, though, is the post-Viral apocalyptic world that Cronin has created. First and foremost, it is utterly believable; his use of diaries and official documents (while vaguely reminiscent of Dracula) serve to create the right atmosphere. The rules by which the characters are forced to live make complete sense, entirely appropriate for the world they live in.

Yet, despite the obvious sci-fi elements, it reads like a fantasy novel – our small band of heroes undertake a quest (don’t worry, I’m not giving too much away), finding themselves as well as what they seek. Each character is given the chance to develop, even if it is in some small way, and the interaction between them is well-written and realistic.

The book ends with a diary extract, which predictability dictates would have been a denouement. But no – Justin Cronin changes everything at the very end with one single line. Clever man.

Looking back, I’ve given only a touching glimpse into how good this book is. I’m reluctant to dig too deep for fear of giving too much away, as I’d like others to experience the same shocks and surprises that I enjoyed. Despite my initial cynicism, I found The Passage to be one of the best books I’ve read for many years, one that I couldn’t put down. It’s been described as an ideal summer read, but as the autumn nights draw in, I’m sure it will be the perfect companion, provided it doesn’t make you look over your shoulder too much!

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2 Comments

  1. ediFanoB says:

    Since I have been disappointed by Stephen King’s Under the Dome, The Passage rests on my shelf unread.
    A lot of good reviews does not mean that you will like a book automatically.

    But your review is different. Without giving away too much you explained in detail what it makes worth to read The Passage. Finally you convinced me to add The Passage to my TBR pile.

    Thank you for a thoughtful review

  2. Can I request a permanent moratorium on reviews that begin with any variation on the sentence: “I wasn’t expecting much with this one”?

    Just askin’.

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