Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ – A Review

IX-cronin-the-passageLet me say up front that I tend to dislike horror stories where the antagonists are just masses of soulless interchangeable monsters: zombies, giant ants, swarms of mutated bees, you get the idea.  There are exceptions to this rule, but they are exceedingly rare.  James Cameron’s Aliens is a grand example of how such monsters can be interesting in their own right. The xenomorphs were well-designed and unique enough to be memorable, and anyway the film was built on the legacy of a single xenomorph from the earlier Alien film.  I also generally dislike stories where the monster is just some variant of a conventional monster that’s been explored a million times . . . like vampires.  Well, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the first book in an eponymous trilogy, ticks off all of those boxes, so I was skeptical about reading it, but the hype claimed it was very different from all of those others, and to a point it is, though perhaps not to the extent that it could’ve been.

When reviewing a book, I generally start with its overriding flaws first, and so I shall.  The biggest problem with The Passage is that the vampires are not that memorable either as a species or as individuals, which is somewhat mitigated by their status as a hive mind, because even a hive-mind can have a personality or voice, and this one does, but that only works if that personality is a compelling one, and unfortunately, the motivating force behind the smokes (as the main group of protagonists in the book call them) isn’t that interesting.  The concept of vampirism being more pathological than supernatural is interesting in itself, of course.  Though not a new idea, Cronin does give us a fairly fresh take on it by adding the hive-mind twist, and by putting them in a post-apocalyptic setting (even if they caused the apocalypse in the first place).

But the thing is, the best monsters–whether individuals or hive-minds–have something that makes them fascinating, some fundamentally human trait or motivation that raises them above a mere force of nature.  My general rule-of-thumb for monsters is, if I can’t relate to them on any level, then they aren’t good villains, and they probably aren’t even particularly good monsters.  When a monster is completely void of humanity, then they are little more than allegory, an idea, and not a real character.  That can work if it is an underlying theme of the story, but here it isn’t.  Hell, Jaws had more personality than these guys!  Which leads to another problem: the original twelve human experiments that become the leaders of their own vampire tribes were all criminals of one sort or another, most of them murderers and violent sex offenders spared from execution by participating in the government program that ultimately turns them into the Twelve (this is established early in the book, so I’m not giving much away here).  So the message seems to be that sex offenders are basically just like vampires whose craving for blood overrides every other motivation and is essentially unquenchable.  I don’t know how familiar Cronin is with criminal psychology, and I’m not exactly a fan of sex offenders either, but this notion is fundamentally ignorant and borders on being childish.  Of course, the book never makes this connection outright, but the idea is there, buried in the subtext.  It’s hardly surprising, of course, but I do expect better from a writer of Cronin’s caliber.  Still, because it is subtextual and not dwelt on too much, it’s a fairly forgivable error.

What is unforgivable though is Amy, a key character who is the very embodiment of the magical-child-as-MacGuffin that ruins so many good stories of this nature.  She starts out as a normal six-year-old girl, and I have to say, she has more heart and personality at this stage (which is a fairly brief period in terms of the book’s narrative) than she does as the nearly century old demi-mortal she becomes later.  Now, I do not have an issue with the magic child trope itself, but they should still have identities and personalities of their own and not just be single-minded (read: simple-minded) MacGuffins who need a ragtag group of bad-ass adults to transport them across dangerous terrain so that they can fulfill their destiny or whatever.  I think I speak for many when I say, it’s time for this trope to die a painful and miserable death.  Kids are people too, dammit!  They deserve better than this.  Granted, Amy is a quasi-child really and not a proper young girl, being as she is ninety-six, but in a way that makes it worse.  What’s next, Cronin?  Are you going to magically age her to complete adulthood when her youthful nature and appearance are no longer convenient?*

Now let’s focus on the positives, shall we?  The #1 selling point of The Passage is that Cronin is sure-footed and confident as both a writer and a storyteller.  Aside from Amy and the virals, his characters are compelling and well-drawn, and the settings are easy to picture (which is why the book will translate well to film).  Peter, Alicia, Circuit and the rest are really the focus of the book anyway.  The science fiction aspects of the novel are strong, and luckily Cronin leans heavily on them. He’s less adept at handling the supernatural side of things, and there is a touch of that here, but luckily not much.  Sci-fi horror is a tricky business, I’ll admit, and to his credit, I think he is aware of the book’s flaws and for the most part does an outstanding job of diverting attention from them: Look away, nothing to see here folks.  Now if you really want to see something, step this way . . . 

Consequently, I’m willing to overlook a lot here.  If not for the author’s skill, the book could easily have become just another ‘special child travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny’ story, but instead we get an entertaining and insightful examination of the internal politics and changing roles of the last handful of survivors of the collapse of human civilization . . . within a story about a special child who travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny.  All in all, I think the book is somewhat overhyped, and possibly misclassified.  As a horror novel, aside from a strong start, it fails.  Despite having a metric crap-ton of vampires (who are bioluminescent, incidentally, a cute joke at the expense of some certain other sparkly vampires), it’s just not very scary.  But as an epic post-apocalyptic adventure tale, it really hits its stride.  We’re invested in the main characters and we want them to succeed.  As the first book in a planned trilogy, it also plots out pretty well, tying up the Babcock storyline but promising much more to come.  At over 760 pages it’s a long book, and there is perhaps some extraneous stuff in the middle, where we are getting to know the members and structure of the First Colony.  Nevertheless, it is a fairly gripping look at a micro-society organized around surviving and fighting off a menacing new species.  The ideas here are nothing new, but they have been sufficiently tweaked to feel new, and if you like this kind of story, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Grade: B 

* Yes, I’m aware of what happens in the second book, thanks for asking.

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