The Passage by Justin Cronin

2010. Ballantine. Hardcover. 766 pages.

Recommendation from: its own omnipresence last year

From: I bought it.

In a nutshell:

In the hopes of creating immortal warriors, the U.S. military deliberately and experimentally infects twelve death-row inmates with a virus.  Of course, this plan goes disastrously wrong when the inmates turn into quasi-telepathic, super-human monster.  These twelve escape and kill almost everyone they encounter, except a selected few who they ‘turn’ to be like themselves.  The first one hundred pages of the book mainly follows the experiment in its last stages, as a FBI agent rounds up the last subject for experimentation, a little girl named Amy.  The rest of the book takes place around ninety years later, with the country – if not the world – wasted by the infected.  A small colony of humans hang precariously onto survival in California.  When Amy shows up at their gate, her arrival sets off a chain of events that will lead to an epic journey for a small, tough group of these colonists.


If I hadn’t bought The Passage, I probably would not have finished it.  I had read reviews that said the first hundred pages were the best part of the book.  So I was dismayed to find myself bored with this section.  I was bored by the foreshadowing which was laid on too thick for my taste.

I was bored by the ‘specialness’ of Amy, which manifests in displays of prescient knowledge and cryptic statements, before she’s even been infected.  Her ‘specialness’ makes what happens to her less interesting than if she’d been a regular person from the start.

A similar character is River Tam from the TV show “Firefly”. River is also a young girl turned government experiment.  What connects River Tam to me as a viewer is the show’s humor and more importantly, her brother, who brings out the ‘normal’ in her.  The Passage‘s Amy has that kind of relationship for a small portion of the book, but it cannot quite erase her overall aloof impression.

Despite this unpromising start, I persevered. My subsequent reading experience was a constant vacillation between engagement and impatience.  I would put it down for weeks and pick it up for a few days.  I started the book in April and finished it today.

The real main character of The Passage is Peter Jaxon, a man with natural leader talents in the California colony. He’s likable and easy to root for, although some of his character conflicts could be cliche (it’s easy to guess what his mother’s last words really meant.)  Definitely it was this character that helped keep me engaged in the book.

Unfortunately, Cronin rotates the perspective of the book too much; a few characters get a token passage of their own just before they die.  This constant shift of perspective was exhausting. The book settles down a little when it focuses on a small group of the characters as they set out on a dangerous journey east. I was most engaged then.

The Passage could often be like reading an action movie.  I’m especially thinking of a part involving a Jeep speeding next to a train.  Sometimes I felt that the story would work better in a visual medium, so if a film adaptation does come out, I’d probably rent it to see if I’m right.

As far as Cronin’s writing, I found his world-building well-considered and thought-out.  Although the whole Babcock-dream undercurrent was kind of weird and not compelling, I liked seeing the main characters puzzle over artifacts of the world before the virus.  Another thing I noticed about the writing is that Cronin likes to exercise his vocabulary.  There seems to be a concerted effort on his part to try and use striking combinations of words.  Here’s an excerpt:

A frigid wind was blowing through the trees, a ghostly moaning. A rind of moon had ascended, bathing the scene in a trembling light, making the shadows lurch and sway around him. They ascended a ridge and descended another. The snow was deep here, blown into drifts with a hard carapace of crust.

p. 712

When I finally finished the book today, my dominant feeling was, “Hooray it’s over.”  At the same time, as the book leaves on a definite cliff-hanger, I had to admit to myself that I was just enough invested in the story that I will probably read the sequel.  I won’t buy it, but I’ll read a library copy.

Others’ reviews:

Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? – “I often praise an author for telling a story with as few words as possible, but I’m going to now praise Cronin for completely immersing his reader in the world he’s created.”

Life by Candlelight – “The characters are interesting and often very moving but that was sometimes lost in silly action sequences and altercations with the virals. There are many many interesting ideas in this book but it almost felt like a set-up for the other books in the trilogy. ”

Novel Insights – “It combines vicious bloodthirsty monsters with characters that you really don’t want to be killed off because Cronin makes you like them. He describes people and landscapes with a great deal of skill and moments of everyday beauty and  are offset against which are set against the underlying sense of horror.”



1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

One response to “The Passage by Justin Cronin

  1. Bill

    Hey, what do you think Peter is? I think he was administered the 12th vial that was missing from the case because, when he asked Lacey if that was her, she said, “I believe it is.” Lacey was just ‘familiar’ with Amy so that’s why she lived so long.

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