Monday 19 April 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The year 2017. The USA is still embroiled in foreign military adventures, New Orleans has turned into a toxic wasteland and Blu-Ray has only just manged to become the dominant entertainment storage medium. A six-year-old girl, Amy Belafonte, is abandoned at a convent by her struggling mother. One of the nuns, Lacey, a former refugee from a war in Africa, realises that something is amiss with Amy, and that she is more than she first appears.

The United States government agrees. In the mountains of Colorado they have established Project Noah, an attempt to develop immortality ("So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years,") using twelve death row inmates as guinea pigs. The final stage of the experiment requires the use of a young child, so the directors send FBI Agent Wolgast to collect Amy. But the experiment has gone catastrophically wrong, and whilst the first twelve experimental subjects have indeed become immortal, they have also become something else, something that cannot be contained.

Ninety years later, a teenage girl arrives out of the blue at one of the last bastions of civilised humanity in the world, a fortified town in California. Her arrival triggers a dangerous cross-country journey back to the source of the infection, and a series of revelations about the true nature of the threat they face, and how to combat it.

The Passage is still months away from publication, but is already a major success story. The publishing rights for the book and its two sequels were sold for $3.5 million, whilst the film rights were purchased by Ridley Scott's company for a cool $1.5 million for the first book by itself. Based on the book, this is understandable: I have rarely read a book that screams "Blockbuster hit!" as loudly as The Passage. Unusually, however, the book combines its mass commercial appeal with an impressive intelligence and a much stronger writing style than might be expected from a big horror novel (the Stephen King cover quote helps as well). The fact that the 'main' publishers rather than their SF&F imprints are publishing the book is also a sign that they are taking this book very seriously.

The Passage is an evocative novel that borrows and combines styles from other sources to terrific effect. The first third of the novel, in which the virus is released and civilisation falls, is reminiscent of the brilliant opening half of Stephen King's The Stand (although, unlike The Stand, Cronin doesn't badly fumble the ending). We then move ninety years further on to a world of crumbling freeways, unstable overpasses and weed-choked ruins which is much more in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (albeit nowhere near as sparse). We then get some thrilling battle scenes between humans and 'virals' set in a shopping mall and the surrounding countryside which is much more in the vein of the Fallout computer games (and possibly Dawn of the Dead), whilst the idea of humanity cowering behind walls from the threat beyond recalls Carrie Ryan's recent novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth and its sequel. Yet the book never feels derivative, more playing with the tropes of the post-apocalyptic horror genre in interesting and original ways.

"When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of earth with his old life locked in its hold; and when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing, and the moon in its arc no longer remembered his name, and all that remained was the great sea of hunger on which he floated forever - stil, inside him, in the deepest place was this: one year. The mountain and the turning seasons, and Amy. Amy and the Year of Zero."

The novel has its own rhythm and cadence, based around rich descriptions of the environment and strong characterisation. The structure of the novel is also successful, with the first third forming an effective prologue to the remaining post-apocalyptic sequence. Initially this move appeared unwise, with Cronin abandoning the well-described situation and memorable characters of the opening of the book to start over from scratch, but the new situation and characters are just as effective, if not moreso (especially Alicia, a devastatingly effective viral hunter, and our main protagonist Peter). This does represent a shift in the pacing, with the first 250 pages rocketing by like a page-turning thriller, whilst the next sequence is more relaxed, but this is necessary to establish the new characters and situation. Then, once the journey into the unknown begins, the pacing and tension ratchet up again. In this latter sequence Cronin gives us a series of episodic adventures, such as the travellers stopping at another settlement built around a ruined prison where nothing is as it seems and a terror-filled journey across Las Vegas, which would make memorable horror novels by themselves, but here are merely smaller parts of a much greater whole.

The novel is but the first part of a trilogy, so whilst the book has definitive end-point and a series of compelling revelations about the setting and the world, there is also something of a cliffhanger ending which we will have to wait some time to see resolved (given it took the author over three years to write this first book, I assume the second is still a while off), which is just about the only negative thing about the book I can think of. Otherwise this is a page-turning, compulsive read.

The Passage (*****) is a superbly-written, well-paced and convincingly-characterised novel where the situation and characters remain in the imagination long after it is finished. This could be the start of something major indeed. The novel will be published on 8 June 2010 in the USA and on 24 June in the UK.


Anonymous said...

You have no taste at all.

This book is pure shit.

Brett said...

The publishing rights for the book and its two sequels were sold for $3.5 million, whilst the film rights were purchased by Ridley Scott's company for a cool $1.5 million for the first book by itself. Based on the book, this is understandable: I have rarely read a book that screams "Blockbuster hit!" as loudly as The Passage.

Well, it's a post-apocalyptic vampire novel, right? I don't blame them for jumping on it while vampires are all the rage, but it's good to hear that it's a good book too.

I must say, though, that the section of prose you cited does not inspire me.

Brett said...

To add-

I read the section available on Amazon, and it's much better than the segment you cited (although definitely a bit fond of the descriptions). I'm intrigued, and will be ordering it.

I got some strong I Am Legend movie vibes from it, which is not really surprising, I suppose (your description makes it sound like a combination of The Stand and I Am Legend).

Adam Whitehead said...

@ Brett: They're not vampires, certainly not in the traditional sense. They're somewhere between the vampires of I AM LEGEND (who also aren't traditional vamps) and zombies, but with a few fresh spins on them, one of which may be familiar to Steven Erikson fans. I can see why the publishers have avoided the 'vampire novel' label as it gives a very misleading impression of the book.

Adam Whitehead said...

@ Anon:

You appear to be in error. You clearly meant to say that the excerpt on the website did not appeal to you. You cannot say the book is pure shit as you have not read it.

Jack Hamm said...

Rofl at Anon. Way to wear that cunt label with pride.

Good review Wert, I've been looking forward to this book. I just pre-ordered on your rec.

ediFanoB said...

A more than impressive review of a book which I definitely must buy and read.

Bookworm said...

I was one of those lucky enough to get a proof copy and I absolutely love it. (Still have about 100pp to go, but that's almost nothing compared to almost 800pp of the whole book :)).
It is a mixture of I am Legend and 28 days later (haven't read The Stand). I was just thinking today that it's one of those books you don't want to end so you could read more. But hey! It's a trilogy! Though it will be painful to wait for the next one.

bloggeratf said...

Profound review. Well done.

I would add this to my list... but if the first book took three years and ends in a cliff hanger, well, there is no way in hell.

arn said...

Recently finished this.

Quite enjoyable although after the first third, as you rightly say which pulses along, the slow down and middle is a bit to slow and flabby. The whole prison part for my mind is an unnecessary delay.

And i agree with the movie thoughts, you can almost picture actors in certain roles, and i didn'y know it was to be a movie until reading this post just now!

Overall, not bad, but i think if i see the second book as huge as the first it might make me think twice about picking it up.

(great blog, thanks, i'm currently looking at older book reviews to order online at my library!!)