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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: I Am Legend

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. But he’s not alone.

An unstoppable plague has devastated the world’s population, killing millions and transforming the survivors into ravenous night-walkers, thirsty for blood. No one is left unscathed. No man, no woman, no child.

Except for Robert Neville.

Miraculously immune to the plague, Neville is a hunter-gatherer by day – stalking the undead as they sleep, and collecting any useful supplies he can get his hands on. By night, he barricades himself in his house, hoping for dawn. His chances of surviving this murderous new world grow smaller by the hour, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Or drive him insane. Whichever happens first.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is another book I became acquainted with via film. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version (starring Will Smith) impressed me a great deal with its tautly-crafted story, complex themes, and profound biblical imagery. It also got a fair amount of flack from fans of the novel, who dismissed it as “yet another Hollywood adaption run amuck.”

I’ve experienced both now – the movie and the book. And though they differ from one another quite a bit, I can honestly say I have a deep appreciation for both. I appreciate the movie for its sophisticated rumination on grace, faith, and redemption. I appreciate the book for its intriguing scientific-backdrop, gripping psychological study, and for the clever (and grimly ironic) nature of its conclusion.

Matheson drops us straight into the heart of the story with one of the best opening lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

The uncertainty of survival – and hints to the dreadful consequences of a single misstep on Neville’s part – are both ominously present in that sentence. And as we read on, we feel a perversely compelling certainty that this story can’t have a “happily ever after” sort of ending.

It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the finale for you; suffice it to say, it’s pretty bleak. Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either. It does, however, prove fitting within the story’s (already bleak) context – and you’ll never look at the title the same way again.

As the tale progresses, Matheson – through the character of Neville – establishes a fairly plausible scientific explanation for the vampires’ existence. I thoroughly enjoyed that part, and if that sort of stuff interests you, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

Most interesting (for me, at least) was “watching” Neville cope with his aloneness. For years, his thoughts have been his only company. No contact with another living being whatsoever. That, combined with the constant threat of violence and death, has begun to take its toll.

To further complicate matters, the vampires that hunt him aren’t just any vampires – they were once his friends and neighbors. And they still recognize him, even in their crazed, plague-ridden state. When darkness falls, they surround his house and call to him: “Come out, Neville! Come out!” Night after night after bloody night. That’ll mess with your head…

Neville’s cynicism and outright despair are not surprising, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a man with faith in God might respond differently under the same circumstances. Neville has nothing outside of himself to turn to, because he believes there isn’t any such thing. There’s just him. And the vampires. And the certainty of a dark and lonely end.

Yet what might a Christian say to this? Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Do I recommend I Am Legend? Yes. It’s not particularly fun reading, but it is engaging and thought-provoking, and will give rise to plenty of interesting discussion. I should add that it’s not a book for younger readers: aside from the disturbing premise, it also has several scenes of violence, a smattering of language, and some sexual themes.

Book Review: ‘Salem’s Lot

Ben Mears has returned to Jerusalem’s Lot in the hopes that a short residence in Marston House (an old mansion long the subject of town lore) will provide inspiration for his latest novel… and help him exorcise his own demons. But when two boys venture into the surrounding woods and only one comes out alive, Mears comes to the chilling realization that something else is at work in his hometown; something ancient and evil. Very evil.

‘Salem’s Lot marks my first encounter with the work of Stephen King, and it turned out to be both a pleasant surprise and a sore disappointment. The scales were tipped in its favor until about halfway through, making it something I’d like to recommend, but can’t.

The artistic merits of the book are undeniable. King is a superb writer, and his knack for spinning a good yarn – and doing it with style and imagination – is quite remarkable. With  an expert sense of plotting, pacing, and characterization, he reworks the vampire legend and deftly deposits it in a small New England town all but forgotten by the rest of the world. Thus, a story that might have been long-winded and tedious is, instead, crackling with vibrant characters, vibrant suspense, and vibrant writing:

When fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you. (p. 200)

Which brings us to the vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot. They’re really the only one-dimensional characters in the book, and that one dimension is pure darkness. Led by the sinister Mr. Barlow, they hearken back to the good old days when vampires were, y’know, evil. Bill Ott says it best:

Before vampires became sympathetic characters with their own alternate worlds, they used to be bad guys, scary not sexy, and they preferred wreaking havoc in horror novels rather than exuding tortured sensitivity in YA coming-of-age fiction.

Stephen King is no Stephanie Meyer. And for that, I am truly thankful.

Chilling as the vampires are, the town itself is even more chilling. Peaceful enough on the surface, it harbors dark secrets underneath, and the vampires are little more than a tangible manifestation of the evil that already lurks in the hearts and minds of the Lot’s inhabitants. Destroying Barlow is only half the battle: the town needs a stake driven through its heart, too.

And that’s where things get sticky. The counter to this evil is a bizarre mixture of humanism and vague spirituality. We hear plenty about the “power” of the Roman Catholic Church, but God and Jesus Christ are noticeably absent (except as expletives). The crucifix is a powerful weapon against the Undead, but its power is directly proportional to the “faith” of its bearer. Faith in what? God? The Church? Religious clap-trap? The answer is unclear. Ultimately, the sole religious figure, Father Callahan, abandons the town in defeat. We never learn what his fate is. We only know that Mears is left to finish the job alone.

If all this wasn’t enough to convince you to shelve the book, content issues should put the nail in the coffin. From sensuality to crude dialogue to eroticized violence, the sexual content in ‘Salem’s Lot is excessive and unnecessary. Unrealistic? Probably not, but I fail to see why we need our faces rubbed in it. A writer of King’s creative calibre could’ve easily told the same story without the smut. And the book would’ve been all the better for it.

Everything I Know About Twilight, I Learned from the Hype

Note: The following post is a spoof of this very funny article

I have not read Twilight. I may read it one day (not really), but that day is not today. Today I’m reading other, better things.

I have a rather vague idea of what Twilight is about, just by hearing and reading the tiny nuggets of information that pop up everywhere. It’s kinda hard to avoid the hype. It’s all over the place – from the internet to magazine covers. If you step outside right now, you’ll probably hear a small voice whisper, “Edward is so cute.”

That voice belongs to a gossipy, well-read grapevine.

So I’m not completely Twilight ignorant. But I may be severely misinformed. Without Googling a thing, here’s what I know about Twilight.

1. It’s a book. Or rather, a series of books.
2. Stephanie Meyer wrote them.
3. It’s also a movie. Or rather, a series of movies.
4. The main character is named Bella Swan. Poor girl. What were her parents thinking?
5. Another character is named Edward Cullen. He’s a vampire.
6. He’s also acutely anemic.
7. The story is “romantic” and “suspenseful”.
8. Then again, maybe it isn’t.
9. From what I’ve heard, Edward loves Bella. He wants to be near her.
10. Sadly, whenever he does get near her, he feels the urge to bite her in the neck.
11. Ouch.
12. This must be what people mean when they talk about “tough love” and “fatal attraction”.
13. Due to the precarious nature of their relationship, Edward and Bella can’t be together.
14. Which also means they both have lots of angst. Enough to drive them both batty.
15. Eventually, they can’t stand it any longer.
16. So Edward bites Bella and she dies and becomes a vampire. She then bites someone else who then bites someone else who…
17. The two of them finally manage to get hitched and live their undead lives happily ever after… biting people.
18. “Till death do us part” was not a part of their marriage vows.
19. Kristen Stewart plays Bella in the movies.
20. I bet she’s annoying. And very, very languid.
21. Robert Pattinson plays Edward. He looks thirsty all the time.
22. That’s probably a bad thing…
23. People keep saying Twilight is amazing, but they never explain why it’s amazing. Like I’m supposed to know.
24. The second book is called something, but I’m not sure what. Full Dark, No Stars?
25. No wait, that’s Stephen King.
26. Stephen King is creepy. He once said he had the heart of a little boy… in a jar on his desk.
27. Yuck.
28. From what I hear, the vampires in Twilight are sparkly and cute and angsty.
29. Wait, what?
30. I prefer my vampires to be bad and nasty. Like the ones in The Passage.
31. I also hear one of the characters is a werewolf.
32. I bet he’s sparkly and cute and angsty, too.
33. I think I’m gonna puke.
34. The third book is called Eclipse.
35. Just guessing here, but I think it’s about an astronomical object that’s temporarily obscured by passing into the shadow of another body.
36. Not sure what that has to do with vampires, wolf men, and Swans, but oh well…
37. Maybe – just maybe – it’s a vague reference to the fact that the main characters are “star-crossed” lovers.
38. I’m a genius for figuring that out.
39. The latest Twilight movie is being released this month.
40. A reboot of the Left Behind film franchise is also in the works.
41. I hope both movies get raptured.

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.