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Book Review: The Twelve

1 For it came to pass that the world was grown wicked, and men had taken war into their hearts, and committed great defilements upon every living thing, so that the world was as a dream of death;

2 And God looked upon His creation with great sadness, for His spirit no longer abided with mankind.  

3 And the Lord said: As in the days of Noah, a great deluge shall sweep over the earth; and this shall be a deluge of blood. The monsters of men’s hearts shall be made flesh, devouring all in their path. And they shall be called Virals.

So begins The Twelve, the second book in Justin Cronin’s trilogy of the apocolypse. Book one, The Passage, plunged us headlong into the fiendish aftermath of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. “It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” Now Cronin continues the story: because the end of the world was really just the beginning.

The first part of the book takes us back to Year Zero, when all hell breaks loose. New characters are introduced, old ones are developed, and more light is shed upon the circumstances surrounding the first Viral outbreak. Meanwhile, Cronin gradually brings us back to the current time, 97 AV – five years after the end of The Passage. Mankind’s fight for survival goes on, but the rules have changed. The enemy is evolving… and the future may hold something far worse than the extinction of the human race.

You could say the stakes are high, and you’d be right. In more ways than one. This is, after all, a novel about vampires. Get it? Stakes… vampires… oh, never mind.

The first question we must ask of The Twelve is this: did it live up to its predecessor? And to that I answer, yea and nay. The Passage is still the stronger of the two, by my reckoning – grander in scope, more tightly plotted, and with greater emotional heft. That being said, this sequel is no slacker. Even with its shortcomings, it towers high above the majority of modern fiction, and is, on the whole, a worthy addition to Cronin’s saga.

And speaking of Cronin, the guy is still at the top of his game as a storyteller. His writing is terrific, and he once again exhibits a tremendous (indeed, Clancy-esque) talent for handling large casts of characters. The story itself is a bona fide epic – a sprawling and majestically gritty tale of blood, survival, sacrifice, and adventure. Some have said it can be read as a stand alone novel, but I couldn’t disagree more. This is a sequel, in the truest sense of the word, and the core of its power lies in its connection to the first book. Reading The Twelve without reading The Passage is like reading The Two Towers without reading The Fellowship. In a word: pointless.

I said this was a novel about vampires, but that’s only half true. Vampires (or Virals) do play a significant role, but Cronin’s story is ultimately about the human race and those who fight for its survival. Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, The Twelve is less about the dead than it is about the living, and its pages are scattered with thought-provoking questions and ideas. You’ll find thrills, and more than a few chills, but you’ll also find quite a bit to think about.

As far as objectionable content goes, The Twelve isn’t much different its predecessor. There’s plenty of violence, a fair amount of strong language, and some mature sexual material. Be sure to take that into account when deciding if you want this book on your shelf (or your child’s shelf). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The City of Mirrors is the final book of the trilogy, and from what I hear, it’s scheduled for release in 2014. I look forward to seeing what Cronin has in store for us. In the meantime…

“All eyes.”

Book Review: The Passage

It’s the end of the world… again. And Harold Camping has nothing to do with it.

Apocolyptic fiction of any kind greatly interests me. Done well, it can be a superb tool for exploring strong emotional, moral, and philisophical themes. McCarthy’s The Road is a magnificent example of this, showcasing the relationship of a father and son against the backdrop of a ravaged world.

Enter Justin Cronin’s The Passage. It caught my eye last year, and I added it to my list of potential reads for 2011. I eventually discarded it in favor of other books and had all but forgotten it when, out of the blue, a friend recommended it to me. I took his advice, picked up a copy at the library, and bingo! I was hooked. It’s equal parts science-fiction epic, end-of-the-world nightmare, and touching human drama all rolled into a single, 800 page volume of ambitious apocalyptic literature.

When a vampiric bat virus is discovered by expeditionaries in South America, it’s transported to a clandestine government facility in the Colorado mountains. There, a team of scientists soon discover that the virus’ potential benefits are incredible: it has the power to make human beings immortal and virtually indestructible. Thrilled by their findings, they attempt to engineer the virus in hopes of creating the ultimate super-soldier. Meet Project NOAH.

Unfortunately, these profound advances come at a cost no one could have anticipated; and when the virus is injected into the human blood stream, it becomes clear that something is very wrong. The test subjects of the experiment – twelve men who were convicts on death row – transform into a superhuman race of vampire-like creatures called Virals. And when a security breach at the facility where they are held unleashes them on the outside world, all hell breaks loose. A night of chaos and death marks the beginning of a nation, and ultimately of a world, forever changed.

As civilization swiftly crumbles, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a troubled man, haunted by the death of daughter and by his involvement in certain morally-questionable activites. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is refugee from Project NOAH – one of the few to survive. Wolgast determines to protect her from the bloody fallout, but for Amy, escape is only the beginning of a much longer journey – over many miles and many years – towards the time and place where she must finish what never should have begun.

I used the word “literature” intentionally when describing this book. The Passage isn’t some cheap apocalyptic horror novel like those that often litter the bargain section of the bookstore. Rather, it is fascinating, intelligent, and thoughtful piece of fiction with impeccable prose, finely-drawn characters, and a relentless pace. It is, in my opinion, a work of art.

Though the premise of his story sounds similar to others of the same genre, Cronin spins it in an entirely new and interesting way. His writing style is polished, smart, and easy to engage with. I’m not exactly a fan of Stephen King, but I think he summed up the quality of the story well when he said, “Read fifteen pages and you will find yourself captivated; read thirty and you will find yourself taken prisoner and reading late into the night. It has the vividness that only epic works of fantasy and imagination can achieve. What else can I say? This: read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”

One major theme of the book is that of retaining humanity in an inhumane world. The characters – even the ones that don’t play particularly crucial roles – are crafted with care and skill, and the reader feels their struggles, joys, and pains. Amy, in particular, is one of most lifelike little heroines I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and her relationship with the troubled Wolgast is heartfelt without a hint of saccharine sentimentality.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the author’s gritty take on vampires. These are not sparkly, angst-ridden, misunderstood bloodsuckers a la Stephanie Meyer; nor do they resemble Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The vampires in The Passage are hairless, insect-like killers: super-fast, super-strong, and extraordinarily difficult to destroy. Elements of vampire lore are present, to be sure – the creatures are immortal, drink blood, and mostly hunt at night – but on the whole, Cronin’s interpretation is quite unique.

Surprisingly enough, faith is neither mocked nor ignored in the story. In fact, one of the key characters is a devout Christian, firmly believing (as it turns out, rightly so) that Amy is God’s answer to the terrible catastrophe. Not only that, but Cronin’s narrative closely resembles that of the Fall in Genesis 3: man brazenly pursues his quest for godlike-ness, and consequently unleashes unimaginable evil on the surrounding world – evil that touches everything and everyone, even the generations to come.

This is not say The Passage is entirely or even explicitly Christian, and readers should still exercise caution and biblical discernment. That said, there’s much to think about, and the book is all the richer for it.

The post-apocalyptic world of The Passage is a dark, threatening, and horrific place; it’s not surprising, therefore, that Cronin’s narrative is punctuated by violence. Humans and virals alike are shot, stabbed, maimed, dismembered, and blown apart in a number of vicious encounters; these sequences are never excessively graphic, but jarring nonetheless, and easily unsettled readers should know what they’re getting into.

Sexual content is surprisingly limited, and when it does pop up, it’s brief and easy to skip. More objectionable is the foul language. It’s not as pervasive as, say, Robopocalypse; and thankfully, after the first couple hundred pages or so, the swearing lightens up considerably. Even so, there’s still quite a bit of it and, when it does pop up, it’s generally strong R-rated fare.

All in all, I recommend The Passage, bearing in mind the cautions given and the fact that it’s only for the most mature of readers. Apparently, it’s only the first installment of a proposed trilogy, the second of which will be released next year. Am I looking forward to it? Definitely.