Justin Cronin – The Passage

I feel like The Passage came out yesterday. In truth, it came out six years ago and I am old, old, old. On its way out the publisher’s door, there was a metric shit-tonne of hype about it, more or less pitching it as a genre book written by a lit guy. I found a copy of it in a book sale at my university and thought, Oh, I’ll read it later. Turns out, I read it six years later.

So why the wait? Because The Passage is 766 pages long, and I’m really biased against big books. Most of the time, they feel like the author didn’t listen to the good sense of their editor; Murakami’s dreadful 1Q84 is the worst offender I can think of. But it’s also no fun to carry around a phone-book-sized novel. Worst of all is when (like this book) it’s part of a series of equally big books, because it suggests there will be no closure or satisfaction waiting at the end of any single novel. So The Passage languished on my to-read shelf until I finally gave it a shot this year.

My short verdict: if you can tolerate some unnecessary material, and feel no compulsion to continue onward, then The Passage is actually pretty OK.

The Passage is a post-apocalyptic vampire book that in most respects grounds itself in reality. While never really the main character, the novel revolves around a girl named Amy who is present for the end of our society (military and scientific hubris, makers of our own misfortune, yadda yadda yadda) and also present many years later, when the last remnants of humankind are struggling to survive. Amy’s roles, as guinea pig or damsel in distress or possible saviour of humanity, are secondary to the two men who take her under their wing: first, a federal agent in the present day, and later, a young man living in one of the last remaining human colonies.

My favourite parts of The Passage are in its world building. These are not vampires in the traditionally portrayed sense, even though they show the same predilections (blood) and aversions (sunlight). Instead, they are mostly treated like extraordinarily dangerous wild animals, bald and pale and toothy but also natural in some sense. They adhere to rules that the reader can mostly keep up with; keep the lights going, for example, and you can keep the vampires out at night. In this sense, the rest of the world (or what’s left of it, after the fall) is built from a logical place, and as such the reader can focus attention on character development instead. Only one aspect, with the “master” vampires, feels like the rules are being made up as they go, but even that’s forgiveable because it leads to some interesting plot turns.

And this book has a lot of characters and plot. The first 250 pages are set in the present day, more or less, and revolve around the circumstances that lead to our dramatic demise, as well as Amy’s fate. The last 500 pages or so are set 90 years later, when Amy resurfaces and sets a young man on a quest to save the world and shit. If you’re bored of the monomyth, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were, then The Passage definitely won’t be for you.

I’m conflicted on virtually every element of the book. For example, the present-day section is maddeningly all over the place, following characters who vary from interesting to painfully dull, and all of whom will be obviously wiped out before long. There are a lot of unnecessary point-of-view shifts that don’t give us very much. But that said, there’s a great story in there, one that mainly revolves around a federal agent torn between duty and moral obligation, and his connection to Amy. I almost feel like there’s another book within these pages, the real first novel of this series, and I kind of wish Justin Cronin had gone that route. It reminds me of John Le Carré in a good way.

Then we leave the present day behind, which is frustrating in and of itself (because so much of it was just filler and set up, like I worried), and we enter the points of view of another million characters. The good news is that it settles into mainly one, a young man named Peter, who stumbles upon Amy years later and, together with some of his friends in a human colony, start to piece together their great quest to rid the world of vampires. Peter’s decent enough and his story is nicely shaped, but we also get some other great characters, many of which are introduced with POV but then never get any satisfying follow-up to their arc.

On the route of their great journey, there’s travelling, encountering old-society things for the first time, mysterious and suspicious humans, master vampires, military, and everything else you need for a good old quest. Some of it is good, especially if you’re tolerant of stories like Watership Down or Lord of the Rings, but once Cronin settles into a “team” of survivors, they feel much less in danger than all the characters did before that point. Suddenly, the vampires seem manageable, instead of an omnipresent threat lingering in the woods and dark corners.

While it comes to a satisfactory conclusion, I still couldn’t help but feel that much of the book wasn’t needed. There is a lot of scaffolding and backstory for characters that just don’t need it. But if big books don’t scare you off, and you enjoy reading about vampires and quests that are somewhat grounded in reality, you would probably have a decent time with The Passage. For what it’s worth, I don’t feel any urge to continue with the series, but I had a decent time while I was reading this.