The Passage by Justin Cronin

Reviewed by Stephen Aryan

The Passage is huge book, both in scope and imagination (it also has a hefty page count) and I believe it’s also the first in a trilogy. The marketing around this book was done in a very clever fashion. The book itself has an intriguing cover, but it doesn’t tell you much. The information on the back gives you an idea of what it’s about, but it doesn’t mention genre. So what is the book actually about? It’s a post-apocalyptic tale about a world that is shattered by a plague of vampires.

the-passageIn parts Cronin’s style reminded me of Stephen King as there is a good balance between character, description and plot. King also gave a quote on the back cover, so that starts to give you a flavour of the book’s content. The first unusual feature is that The Passage feels like two separate books in one. The first part, perhaps the first third, is the build up to the event, it’s fairly dense in places, has lots of information on all of the characters and is set around the character of Amy. She is central to the plot and as Cronin has mentioned in interviews, she is the heart of the story and was developed after something his daughter said to him.  This part of the book feels like a Stephen King novel and the style was similar and I felt it was going somewhere.

The other part of the novel is very different in style and it’s more focused on developing characters through action and dialogue. The story is set almost a hundred years after the incident in a world that used to be ours, but has become something else entirely. Quick touchstones would be King’s The Stand and The Walking Dead. There’s a big cast of characters, a lot of new terms and politics connected to the First Colony, a human settlement, and you’re thrown in at the deep-end and have to just go along with it until it all starts to make sense. This isn’t a complaint, it’s just an warning of what to expect, but I would highly recommend persisting as it’s a good story.

During the second part of the story you have to really pay attention, even then you might find yourself flicking back a few times to check, but you didn’t miss something. The narration jumps around a bit as it starts with one character, Peter, quite often recalling something about his lost brother, only for us to then see his brother, and then we’re in a different time again. As events build in the second half , its becomes less confusing and events are more linear. One of the problems in the second half is because the cast is so huge, I struggled to keep track of who certain characters were and get a hold on them. It was only when the story focuses on a smaller group that I got a feel for who the characters are and they had space to be individuals rather than just one name in a hundred. When events begin to move, the book becomes difficult to put down, but at times I did struggle with it.

As is common in post apocalyptic books, some of the more horrific moments come not at the hands of the threat or the environment, but other human beings. Cronin does a good job of maintaining a balance, showing us humans at their absolute worst and best. I was also glad to see that the vampire threat was not just ignored thereafter, but at times they were relegated to the thing to fear in the night. There was some evolution and intriguing ideas ,but again it comes much later in the story.

I don’t want to keep banging on about this, and I’ve mentioned in other reviews about the size of a book being intimidating, especially when you aren’t familiar with the author, but I wanted to add something. After reading my first Peter F. Hamilton book I understand why his books are so big because there’s a lot going on. The story is always moving forward and his style is tight enough that I’m never bored wading through pages of exposition of technobabble that doesn’t add to the plot. He never just goes in circles or repeats himself to fill space. For me personally, Cronin’s book was just too long and at times it suffered from uneven narration and the characters didn’t have strong or distinct voices until towards the end.

One other small point, but I might be the only one who felt this, I think Cronin was too lenient with his characters. It’s not a spoiler to say there were plenty of deaths, and several chapters or sections ended in cliff-hangers, but after a while I stopped worrying because I knew certain characters wouldn’t die, no matter how dire the situation. This robbed the story of what could have been some incredibly gut wrenching moments where you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Overall I think this is a good book which contains a lot of good ideas, but the execution needs work. I don’t want to come off sounding too negative because this was an enjoyable read, but it was difficult at times for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned. I also think the second book in the trilogy will actually be more exciting because by the end of the first, we have a good idea of where it’s going. Its not necessary requirement for me to enjoy a novel, but I think in this case it would motivate me to pick up the next one in the series.

4 thoughts on “The Passage by Justin Cronin”

  1. Hm, this has been on my TBR list a while. Now I am debating taking off, not because the length, but from what you have said about the style. I do like a large cast of characters on the other hand.

  2. Hi Beth,

    It's worth reading because it does have a lot of good ideas in there, and I think it's still a decent story, but you just need to be aware of a few things that tripped me up. At least this way you're prepared for them. 🙂

  3. Okay, I'll persevere. I'm about halfway through the first third and have been sidetracked by other books (Jim Butcher, Violette Malan, GRRM, and Jo Nesbo to name but a few). Still have it at home so will plunge in as soon as I finish Bartok's The Memory Palace


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