After a six-week period where my entire life seemed to be taken over by “Fifty Shades of Grey”, it feels very, very good to be writing about a book I loved. “The Passage” is the kind of book where you’re torn between galloping through it at a breakneck pace because you can’t wait to find out what happens next, and going slowly so you can savour the writing.
Oh, and which also features the Immortal Undead. Always a huge plus-point. Can you tell how much I loved this book yet? I hope so.
Plot summary. The first third of the book takes place in near-future America. A single mother struggles raise her daughter Amy alone before finally abandoning her in the care of a convent of nuns. Meanwhile, Professor Jonas Lear takes a military-sponsored field-trip to a South American jungle to find and bring back a mysterious virus which he believes will allow mankind to live for hundreds of years – possibly by turning them into vampires. Finally, Wolgast and Doyle are FBI agents charged with the extraction and smuggling of Death Row prisoners – plus Amy – to a secret Government facility where they can be infected with the jungle virus to see what happens.
Unsurprisingly, giving a Vampire virus to a bunch of Death-Row murderers doesn’t go well. They mutate into weird bloodthirsty monsters, they escape, they start infecting everyone else, the whole world goes to Hell in a handcart. But Amy – the last trial subject to be injected with the virus, and the only one who has remained reasonably close to human – is smuggled out of the facility by Wolgast, and hidden away in an old summer-camp to try and ride out the Apocalypse.
The second part of the book is set ninety-three years later and follows the fortunes of a small, isolated colony of humans. As the descendants of a few lucky original survivors of the Apocalypse, they’re leading a moderately satisfying existence behind a huge wall and a bank of super-bright lights that keep the vampires away at night. But after ninety-odd years of service, their equipment’s beginning to wear out and the technology needed to repair it no longer exists. When Amy’s path crosses theirs, they form a desperate plan to try and save their colony from certain collapse.
While the book is billed as a Vampire novel, it’s worth saying at once that this book is far more like a Zombie story than it is like a Vampire one. If you want a story in which pale-faced old-world aristocrats play at high politics and do terrible decadent things in a carefully-orchestrated bid for power, this is not the book for you. But if you (like me) have room in your heart for both “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead”, then you’ll probably love it, because in a sea of mediocrity, this is a Zombie story that really stands out.
After several decades of Hollywood Zombie movies, the tropes of the Zombiepocalypse story are so well-rehearsed that directors have resorted to glomming two genres together and seeing what happens (Zombiepocalypse / Gangster mash-up, and it’s French!! Zombiepocalypse / Nazi mash-up, and it’s Swedish!). For the record, I’ve seen both of these movies, and they’re both kind of fun; there’s just not much mileage in pretending they’re actually any good. In contrast, what impressed me most about “The Passage” wasn’t the new elements it brought to the story (being honest, there aren’t any) but how well the story was told.
Telling a good Zombiepocalypse story requires you to avoid a massive number of elephant-traps. The first and most basic one, But Why Would You Do Such A Thing, is the problem of why a bunch of seemingly sensible and well-intentioned people would set out to do something so utterly, pointlessly risky and dangerous (“Hey, look, a deadly virus! Let’s store some in a glass test-tube and then smash it!”) that it rapidly leads to the destruction of all mankind. The classic answers to this are Because They’re Just Evil, M’kay, and Because They Think They Might Save Mankind – usually with the not-very-subtle subtexts of Everyone In Government Is Evil, and Everyone In Government Is Stupid.
Cronin goes for the well-intentioned-but-stupid solution, which isn’t unusual. What is unusual, though, is how well he constructs it. In most Zombie stories, everyone’s just desperate to break out the leather coats and the chainsaws and get on with the schlock. This means the initial trigger-event is often confined to one clearly insane power-crazed scientist dropping a fragile glass test-tube in a lab with hard floors and no containment facilities. In “The Passage”, Cronin carefully documents the multitude of great-sounding ideas, conflicting agendas, morally dubious decisions, ill-founded optimism, small errors and inevitable technical failures that collectively add up to disaster. Cronin’s Zombiepocalypse requires a nationwide effort to get started, and it’s much scarier, because you can see how it might happen.
The next big elephant-trap, The Special One, is doubly tricky to pull off because Cronin’s Special One is a little girl with superpowers. I’ve written before about how inexplicably awful most writers are at female super-powered characters. Add in the challenges of convincingly writing a child, and suddenly you’re balancing on a piece of cheesewire suspended over a fiery pit filled with fire-resistant alligators and slightly out-of-control metaphors. With bare feet.
And yet somehow, Amy isn’t excruciating. In fact, she’s rather delightful. This is achieved partly by keeping her quiet. Amy hardly ever speaks to anyone, which avoids the need for the amusing misunderstandings and naive questions that set my teeth on edge about Daniel Torrance and Carol Anne Freeling. It also helps that most of the time, the adults around her are a lot more focused on not dying than they are on understanding the intricate intricacies of this intricate child’s intricate and utterly enthralling mind (Danny Torrance again, sorry. I do love “The Shining” really).
But mainly, it’s just because she’s…likeable. Not cute. Not adorable. Not winsome. Just…likeable. If I absolutely had to take someone else’s kid to a Theme Park for the day, I can imagine Amy being sort of good company. And when she’s seemingly the last character standing from the first third of the book, I don’t hate her for making it out when so many good people have been killed off.
Which leads nicely into the first elephant-trap Cronin doesn’t entirely dodge: the Body-Count Conundrum. In the Apocalypse instalment of a Zombie story, there’s really only two ways to go – Everyone Dies, or Lone Survivor. Amy’s status as Lone Survivor is mentioned in the first line of the book, so it’s not a surprise that she’s the one who makes it out. What I was surprised by, though, was just how very upset I was when everyone else was killed off. After several hundred pages of heavy emotional investment, it was simply awful when, a third of the way in, I realised all the adult characters were dead, and I was going to have to get to know a whole new lot of people in order to get to the end of the book.
I was expecting some of them to die, of course. But imagine if George RR Martin killed off all the Starks, all the Lannisters, all the Targaryens and the whole of the Night Watch about a third of the way into “Game of Thrones” and then started again on another continent with a whole new set of characters. Would that be fun? Even the brilliant segue of the evacuation sequence wasn’t quite enough to console me.
But then we have the First Colony story, which is so great that I cheered up and fell back in love with the narrative. Lying in wait for any unwary visitor to a second-generation survival colony is the excruciating Tomorrow-morrow-land Error, where the survivors are portrayed as cheerful simpletons who have no idea of the gravity of their situation, and whose bare remnants of understanding about the outside world are more of a hindrance than a help. The first time I saw children referred to as “Littles”, I admit my toes kind of curled up just a little bit. After that, I was kind of on the fence for a while. Just because there hadn’t been an annoying camp-fire reminiscence about the magic people with their special flying machines who were coming to save them one day and fix everything so just hang tight and don’t worry, it’ll all be all right folks, so far, didn’t mean there wasn’t going to be one any minute now.
Then I got to this beautiful passage:
The day-to-day. That was the term they used. Thinking neither of a past that was too much a story of loss and death, nor of a future that might never happen. Ninety-four souls under the lights, living in the day-to-day. (p292)
This is the exact moment in the book when I decided to get over my huge upset over Wolgast’s death (sorry to spoil, but that’s what happens) and enjoy the rest of the story. Unjustified optimism as a deliberate, intelligent choice. And really, isn’t this how we all live? Until we’re forced to, do any of us ever contemplate the fact of our own mortality? That’s how you avoid the Tomorrow-morrow-land Error.
Cronin’s already batting way, way above the average for Elephant-Trap Dodging, so I’m not going to complain about the two remaining ones he doesn’t quite manage to avoid: the Dance With The Devil, and Here Comes The Military. On their journey through the Apocalyptic wasteland, the Colonists encounter a parallel group of survivors, who seem weirdly interested in pregnancy, and weirdly short on boys. If your first thought is “Sacrificial Breeding Programme”, you can have a large gold star, and if your next thought is “Which The Outraged Colonists Will Now Destroy”, you can have two. If I was on a mission to save some paper and make this book a bit shorter, this is the section I’d delete. Maybe it’s got a bigger role to play in the sequel and I’ll be recanting later, I don’t know. But in a huge cast of well-written, well-rounded characters, the Site B people stand out as a bit clumsy and one-dimensional.
The book ends with the traditional hook-up with some army guys, the discovery of the Big Bad Apocalyptic Super-Weapon, and the final showdown with the Vampires in which Amy’s superpowers are revealed. It’s possibly a measure of how very well-written the rest of the book is, and how absorbing the stories of its characters, that I was actually a bit bored by this part. Vampires, hive-minds, still some humanity remaining inside, blah blah blah, explosion. The good guys win. Hoorah. Now can we please get back to the people stuff.
I get why this is in here, I really do. Movie-makers have conditioned us to expect the traditional Everything-Explodes turbo-charged ending, and Cronin does the very best job any writer can at re-creating this in prose. It’s just that – you know – it’s not a surprise. The only tension comes from wondering who’s going to get maimed and how badly, and whether Amy’s superpower will be Re-awakening Humanity, Horde Control, or both. And after hundreds of pages of sustained Brilliance, I was officially too spoilt and jaded to properly enjoy scenes which were merely Pretty Good.
So, what happens next? Well, we already know there are going to be at least two sequels. The opening line of the book is “Before she became the Girl…who lived a thousand years”, which clearly suggests a sweeping-epic sort of timeframe. I can see I may well have to bid a regretful farewell to the colonists on the grounds of either Vampires or the normal aging process, and get to know a whole bunch of new people – who may also then die of Vampires or old age. Possibly I’ll have to do this several times over. I’m also sort of thinking “Dune”, and “Star Wars”, and “Clan of the Cave Bear“, and wondering if the next two books can possibly live up to the first one.
But the honest truth is, they could probably afford to be only half as good as the first one and they’d still be brilliant. I’ve pre-ordered “The Twelve” for my Kindle and damn, I’m looking forward to it.