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The Passage
Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books, 766 pages

The Passage
Justin Cronin
Born in New England, Justin Cronin is the author of Mary and O'Neil, which won the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize, and The Summer Guest. Having earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Cronin is now a professor of English at Rice University and lives with his family in Houston, Texas.

The Passage Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

You've heard of it. Come on, admit it. You have. Everyone has.

It's one of THOSE books. You know of it long before you glimpse it -- the fabled break-out book, the advance worth millions, the film deal, the works, including a full paragraph's worth of a back-cover blurb by no less than Stephen King. And now here it is, with its eerie near-holographic cover, with its 700+ pages (it's hard on the wrists...), its full-color promo materials tucked inside complete with the photo of the boyish-looking author and the background story of how the book got written (on jogging outings with his beloved daughter, while the two of them spun the tale of the Girl Who Saved The World).

So, then. I read it.

And I am mightily miffed. Really I am.

A trilogy? Really? REALLY? Would it have killed anyone to actually mention this anywhere on the actual, you know, BOOK, so that we might be made aware of this fact?

Perhaps this accounts for the odd structure of this novel, the fact that it isn't actually a complete stand-alone. But for the first part of the book, we read about a bunch of characters who appear to be important. Then -- BAM -- it's rocks fall, everybody dies. Well, everybody except the Girl Who Saved The World, who's kind of the point of it all, it would seem -- but the rest of the book takes place almost a century later, with a completely different cast, in a setting that's a post-apocalyptic love child of something written by Stephen King (yes there's a reason for that blurb) and Michael Crichton. Zombie vampires, anyone? Why settle for one catastrophe when you can have the whole enchilada...?

I am left, at the conclusion of this behemoth, with questions to which I do not have answers which satisfy me.

1. Okay, Amy. But WHY Amy? In the beginning she is described as an unfortunate child of a woman who is an unfortunate child herself -- but hey, there are plenty of unfortunate children out there. There is no indication as to how or why this particular little girl came to the attention of the Seekrit Guv'mint Project (or if there is I blinked and missed it); it would seem that only the mad doctors and the baboons at the zoo know "what she is" but the reader is left adrift. There is nothing about this kid to warrant her being singled out for any kind of specialness, other than being born as the person she is, a poor kid with a tired and abused mother who cannot keep body and soul together for either herself or her child. But this is a social work project, not a Special Angel child. I never saw any sign that Amy was slated for -- you know -- great things. She's a damned McGuffin, that's what she is; she is the Deus in the ex-machina, really. And by the end of this book -- at the point where her special powers manifest at last -- they kind of come out of nowhere as though they've been plucked out of thin air.

2. The dog. Oh, Justin Cronin, I will not forgive you the dog. You paint a picture of a world where everything warm-blooded larger than a vole or a starling has been systematically EATEN by your undead. And yet, to complete your picture of nice comfortable domesticity late in the book with the pregnant woman and the man who loves her and makes a home in a long-abandoned homestead -- here it is, the dog, somehow surviving and highly un-feral and even happy to be around humans again (after being presumably alone and starving for Heaven knows how long), being let into the house, sleeping on people's beds just like in the best of times... and then you slaughter the dog with another of your Deus-ex-machina characters who just HAPPENS to have been turned into a zombie vampire (which kind of, as I understand it, WIPES THE INDIVIDUAL MEMORY) and managed to find the precise homestead, amongst the thousands of abandoned ones, where his pregnant ex-wife and her beloved (who is the true father of the kid the zombie vampire once believed was his) have holed up to practice happy domesticity. No, I don't forgive you the dog.

3. I want to know whether the second half of the book was written after the movie contract came through -- because it sure reads like a movie treatment rather than an actual book. For all the bulk of the actual physical volume that I am holding in my hands, there is precious little depth here -- just people wandering about and ducking hazards (oh, video game, anyone...?) and, in the end, BAM, just as you got involved with these characters and started giving a damn about what happens to them, another (this time implied) rockfall where everyone dies -- for one set of characters, at least, and for the rest, an arrival at an empty place where a colony of people once thrived and standing on abandoned Ground Zero with no real explanation as to what happened to everyone other than two corpses left behind with only a cryptic statement, "Now we're at war." I kind of thought that they were at war for nearly a hundred years. This isn't reinventing the wheel, folks. You're still fighting the same enemy.

4. The titular "Passage," and Amy's ultimate role in the Zombie Vampire Apocalypse. I can see where this was headed. I can even begin to glimpse the potential of the power which it might have had. But it's blown. There is no heart to this book. When you get to the place where you're supposed to weep, you are basically sitting back being vaguely skeptical and slightly confused.

Maybe these, and more, get answers in the second book which I never knew was coming when I tackled this mammoth volume.

But these seven hundred plus pages of answerless questions... well... let's just say that this is one of those books I'll be passing along to the local second-hand bookstore instead of keeping it on my own shelves. No doubt it will be snapped up there by some eager reader who's Heard Of It and won't believe his luck that he's been able to snaffle the book for the cost of a latte.

Potential next reader, I wish you well. As for myself... I might flick through book 2 (as and when it eventuates) just to see whether it actually goes anywhere that I can in good conscience follow it. Other than that, I'm out of The Passage, and on the other side, and I'm not looking back.

Copyright © 2010 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days.

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