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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: 'The Passage'

By Justin Cronin
Horror Fiction
June 2010
Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0-345-50496-8

By now most have heard about The Passage, how it's this huge book about vampires, a post-apocalyptic thriller with non-stop action and a little girl immune to the virus that's making monsters, the first in a trilogy that's caught fire.

That's all true. But The Passage also is a work of literary mastery that is a strong story of love. Parental love, sibling love, love that lasts across the years -- that's what The Passage is about as much as it is about viral vampires and a small band of humans surviving the biggest experiment-gone-wrong ever.

Justin Cronin begins his story with two narratives. One is a heart-tugging tale of a smalltown girl who believed the wrong man, got pregnant and went inevitably downhill. Her little girl sleeps in motel bathtubs while she entertains male customers. At the same time, a group of scientists penetrates the jungle in search of what may be one of mankind's most important medical discoveries. Things go horribly wrong.

The two narratives meet when the little girl, Amy, is snatched to be inoculated with the virus that has twelve creatures hidden in a Rockies citadel. She doesn't turn into one of the viral vampires like the others. When the whole place explodes, Amy is whisked away by Wolgast, the agent who snatched her in the first place, with help that includes a nun with genuine spirit and grace.

Shift to decades in the future, when civilization in North America has collapsed and nothing is known of the outside world. A small enclave out West has survived through the generations after children were put on trains to travel to remote safe havens. Again, Cronin is masterful at introducing another large cast of new characters, distinct in their hopes, dreams and shortcomings, with compassion for human foibles and admiration at human strength.

The way Cronin's characters know each other and care for each other propels the story as surely as the action scenes, which range from strategically complex battles to a nail-biting train ride that's right up there with any cinematic car chase. Cronin's story also demonstrates the strength of individual ability to love and maintain one's identity as power in an allegorical fight that takes place when the virus runs rampant and the battle for a civilization to survive looks perilous.

One of the things that makes The Passage so strong is that each of the separate strands in this huge epic stand alone. Any of them would make a satisfying story without any of the rest. But weave them together, especially as well as Cronin has done, and you've got a powerfully moving, exciting adventure filled with small moments that can take your breath away as adeptly as the pounding action scenes. A small encounter toward the end is such a moving moment the reader is nearly dared to not get misty eyed. That scene is one of several that Cronin underwrites so they stand out all the more.

Whenever the next book in the trilogy to which this is the first comes out, it cannot be soon enough.

© 2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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