Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books, 2010

On paper, there’s a lot I could criticize about The Passage by Justin Cronin.

The plot isn’t terribly original: a virus is unwittingly unleashed by the government which turns people into something very much like vampires. Mr. Cronin presents the standard well-intentioned scientist whose work is hijacked by the military (which, as expected, doesn’t go well). There’s a roster of bad guys, a cop with a conscience, and a Chosen One whose arrival can save mankind. There’s even an oracle of sorts.

It’s a man-made apocalypse story built on fairly generic story tropes. We witness the moment it all goes wrong and then spend the rest of the novel living in the post-apocalyptic world of the few survivors.

We’ve seen all this before. I Am Legend, zombie movies, The Walking Dead, et al. The ending offers a faint wisp of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even the hive-mind wrinkle the author incorporates into his vampires is a familiar idea.

But none of that is a problem. None of it is a weakness. None of it feels derivative. This is one of the best renditions of all these ideas I’ve read.

What makes The Passage shine are the characters and the quality of the writing. Mr. Cronin’s character work is wonderful. He develops characters with tremendous depth. His writing is lyrical and evocative, at times verging on poetic. This is a style of writing which is rare in the realm of popular fiction.

So, too, Mr. Cronin’s world building is some of the best in the business. The world he creates is entirely up to the task of housing these exceptionally well-developed characters and offering them sufficient challenges.

It doesn’t matter if the plot mechanisms aren’t all that original, when the characters who live in this world, and who experience the events which occur there, are so vivid and believable. The story here isn’t the apocalypse and its aftermath—it’s how these individuals cope with it.

Another potential point of criticism: Peer into the story and you find several unanswered questions—How does the virus actually work? How did it come to exist at all? Is it even scientifically plausible? Why is Amy so different and special in the first place? Etc.

In the hands of a lesser author, the lack of answers would bother me—an indication that the writer can’t master their own material. But in the hands of Mr. Cronin, the lack of answers is key to why this novel works so well.

Because none of the characters know the answers, either. These things are mysteries to those who live in this world. By sharing their ignorance, by living with the same mystery, the reader is embedded in their experiences in a very powerful way.

The book would be substantially reduced if it provided more clarity.

If there’s a weakness to this novel, it’s that the pacing is inconsistent. There are moments when it bogs down, especially in the first section of the book. It takes too long for the story to hit its stride and I found the beginning a bit of a slog. I feel like Mr. Cronin devotes more time than he should need getting his actors in position before things really get started.

This criticism is a double-edged sword, though. What bogs down the pacing is the amount of time Mr. Cronin spends delving into his characters. As I stated, character development is the strongest piece of this novel, and as any good writer will tell you—story grows out of characters.

But pacing matters. And there are times when Mr. Cronin indulges in character development to the point that it interferes with the forward momentum of the plot. These aspects need to be balanced and he doesn’t get it quite right.

Occasionally boggy pacing is a minor price to pay for the rich rewards of this novel.

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