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The Passage / Justin Cronin

Ballantine Books / June 2010
Reviewed by: I.E. Lester

Editor's Note: This review contains spoilers.

The US military machine has launched a secret scientific project. (Is there any other kind?) Their aim: To create a breed of unkillable super-soldiers. So they gather the brightest minds, give them an endless supply of equipment and chemicals — and a host of death-row inmates for them to experiment upon.  All too soon things start to go predictably wrong. The prisoners – who were offered the chance to take part in the experiment as a way of avoiding execution – are mutated into vampire-like creatures. And they escape.

Thrown in amongst all the chaos is a single element that offers hope to besieged mankind. Amy Bellafonte is a nobody girl, the daughter of a hooker who abandons her at a convent hoping she’d get a better life if raised by the nuns. Her life is going to be nothing of the sort, though, as US government secret agents kidnap her from the convent, delivering her to the project as another test subject. And (once again, predictably) she proves to be the project’s greatest success — although far too late to prevent a world meltdown as the mutated creatures escape.

Two hundred and fifty pages in, everything the book has set up ends. Every character (barring Amy) is dead. To the reader, it’s a little jarring to realize that one-third of the book is, in effect, a prologue. Any investment the reader has made in the characters in Cronin’s fictional world can be set aside. To Cronin’s credit, had the writing not been as strong as it is here, this break may have felt less wrenching.

The action jumps forward a century and changes location to Haven, a fortress populated by the remaining uninfected survivors of the human race. The reader is presented with another batch of characters and a series of back stories, as well as detailed descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world. Then, just as this world is established and you know the day-to-day struggles of the people inhabiting the compound, Amy re-enters the narrative. (You really couldn’t see that coming, could you?) Unfortunately, in this section, the writing style loses a little of the cohesion that made the extended prologue so strong and compelling.

Haven has had a century to evolve, a century of the human race as a prey species struggling to survive. This could have been visualized spectacularly well if the prose had been as sharp as it was in part one. Make no mistake: Cronin hasn’t done a bad job. In fact, if you were to compare his writing to that of many contemporary science-fiction/horror writers, it would easily stand out as superior. It’s just that from the high standard he set in the book’s first third, there’s a definite drop in quality and it all falls a little flat. Things do pick up a little towards the end of the book, but they never truly reach the heights of the first third.

The Passage is a book that could have been great, despite there being little originality at play here whatsoever. Essentially offering up a retread of vampires as a scientific plague, Cronin’s epic will remind readers of other works – Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend comes immediately to mind – and other writers who got there first. 99.9% of humanity wiped out, the remaining fraction seeking to overcome an evil enemy? Sounds like Stephen King’s The Stand. A child (albeit long-lived in this case) proving mankind’s last hope? How many previous examples do you want? Still, there are glimmers of greatness.

There’s quite a bit to enjoy in the pages of The Passage, but maybe just not enough to warrant the effort of reading 750 of them.

Purchase The Passage by Justin Cronin.

Posted on Tuesday, November 9, 2010 at 11:17AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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