America, present day. The military have found a mysterious virus that accelerates healing. They test it on death row inmates in an underground bunker, documenting the unexpected side effects. They have safeguards in place. Nuclear failsafes. Because if the subjects escape, nothing will be able to stop them.
Obviously it’s going to go wrong.
I love (post-)apocalypse fiction. However, I’m going through a patch where I can’t cope with high-octane tension such as threat to beloved characters (I physically can’t watch The Walking Dead at the moment), so choosing to join in the global read-along of The Passage was a risky choice.
The Passage has received a lot of hype, which I mostly tried to avoid because it’s really hard to write original apocalypse. It’s a path so well-trodden that it’s mostly mud and potholes. That said, in choosing to write a vampocalypse after the recent spate of zombie and flu epidemics, Cronin delivers a fresh apocalypse mechanism even as he borrows classic tropes from the vampire and apocalypse libraries wholesale.
I really enjoyed huge sections of this novel, but I nearly didn’t finish it. Worse, I nearly didn’t start it – and I don’t mean that I nearly didn’t pick it up. The Passage isn’t just a door stop, it’s an airplane chock. It’s intimidating even to a quick reader (which I am). And after a solid, traditional couple of set-up chapters – a disadvantaged mother and abandoned daughter trying to stay afloat; an epistolary account of a scientist tracking down rumours of a possible cure for everything in the South American jungle – the first act becomes a lengthy examination of what makes a handful of unpleasant men human.
The logic of testing new medicines on death row inmates is slightly dystopian, ethically problematic and ruthlessly practical. Here it’s cloaked behind layers of bureaucracy to give it plausible deniability and staffed by shady black ops contractors and ex-convicts, who are neither likely to talk about the psychological assaults they find themselves under nor likely to be missed if they never come back down the mountain.
It all makes sense, but I just couldn’t make myself care about any of these men as point of view characters. Cronin works incredibly hard to illustrate their humanity, but I was literally yelling ‘DIE ALREADY’ at the page, much to the amusement of my long-suffering partner.
I had to force myself to keep reading as I waited for the inevitable cock-up that would unleash the apocalypse.
Unexpectedly, the book skips the apocalypse almost entirely. Thankfully, once it happens, we get a new crop of points of view as the action skips forward by nearly a century. Here the book finally found its feet for me: sympathetic characters, a beleaguered post-apocalyptic settlement, and the first hints that the fragile status quo is under threat. The settlement relies on big walls, keen eyes and their wind-powered lighting array to keep the vampires away – and the power is failing.
The central act is exactly what I was hoping for: tense and pacy. Cronin serves up nail-bitingly eerie rides through deserted streets, waiting for something to pounce; rapid-fire attack sequences; simmering conflicts at home (if you don’t know that humanity’s as much of a threat to itself as any external threat, you haven’t been reading enough apocalypse fiction); and some steady character development.
By the time it all goes tits-up and our heroes flee the Colony, I had established firm favourites (Team Lish, obviously) and was keen to find out what happened next. It’s not that it made up for the slow first act – I honestly think that a first time reader could skip it entirely, and start with the Book of Auntie without having any trouble keeping up – but it did a lot to improve my attitude.
I enjoyed the group’s journey through the wilderness, and was delighted by the sequence in Nevada (the concept driving it isn’t new, but I’ve not seen it applied post-apocalypse before) and beyond. I discovered – to my own surprise – that I didn’t want anything terrible to happen to Mausami, actually putting the book aside one night so that I could fall asleep with her happy even if she got torn to shreds in the morning.
And then at the end, it disappointed. Okay, okay, I’m being melodramatic. We get a big climactic showdown, and then… the book just keeps dribbling on. And on. There’s a string of movies from The Return of the King to Mockingjay Part II that struggle to a finish as they try to tie up loose ends. The novels they are based on handle this with more grace, and crucially are the final novels in a trilogy – not the first.
I think this is my core problem with The Passage: it’s too aware that it’s the first book in a trilogy. It doesn’t try to stand alone, and it’s so focused on laying groundwork for the sequels that it ends up bloated and badly paced. There’s a really fun 4 star read in the middle – from the Book of Auntie to a Colorado hotel (or at most, the Utah farmstead) – and if I hadn’t read the chapters before or after, I think it would actually work better. Instead, I outright hated a third of the book – given its size, that’s enough pages to be a book in its own right.
I’d rather have backstory fed to me when I need to know it (some at the climax; most, from what I understand, in The Twelve) and happy for the sequel set-up to come at the beginning of the sequel itself. If the book is good enough – and it is – readers will be back for more, because the more is implicit in the unanswered questions and obvious threats.
Your mileage will vary. Other readers in the global read-along have waxed ecstatic about the detail I found so painful, and the exquisite humanity of the murderer, the paedophile and the kidnapper that I just considered an obstacle between me and the actual story (if I want literary apocalypse, this still isn’t it. That’s Station Eleven). Those readers are keen to get on to the sequels. As it is, and with my understanding that The Twelve re-introduces some of those POVs I hated and dives into more backstory, I’m not actually sure I want to read it.
But weirdly, I can see myself re-reading the 500 pages in the middle of The Passage as a stand-alone novel.