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Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

For me, the biggest issue I had with Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic novel, The Passage, was I could not get emotionally attached to any of the characters, which is the basic premise for any novel. He starts out with a good idea, and spends 250 pages setting it all up, and then just as the novel appears to really kick in, it falls off a massive cliff and only recovers –somewhat – towards the latter half. What’s in between is nothing but bland, undefined characters –mostly like the red shirt security guards on the original run of Star Trek – who you really can feel nothing for.

The Passage begins around 2018, and lays the ground work for what later would be a post-apocalyptic world that is overrun by vampire-like beings that are infected by a highly contagious virus (once again, the military is blamed for it). What begins as a project (NOAH, one of the many Bible references throughout the novel) to develop a new immunity-boosting drug based on a virus carried by an unnamed species of bat in South America eventually becomes the virus that transforms the world. Then the novel jumps ahead more than ninety years later as colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood.

One of the reasons I stopped reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was due to the 50 million characters he introduced (well that, and the I got bored). It was hard to keep them all straight, mostly because they had no bearing on the plot. And like Jordan’s characters, most, if not all of the ones featured here, are one dimensional at best, and at times, I could not tell one from the other. The all seemed…so disposable.

The only potentially interesting character is Amy, yet she is strangely underused here (but that may change, as I’ve learned this is the first book in a proposed trilogy). And while I tried to like the characters, like teenage Caleb, I never felt any emotional attachment to him (which is unusual for me). And as for the colony –which resembles in structure Brian Matthews 2005 novel New Wilderness – Cronin seems to go out of his way to make it the most boring thing.

The novel is also about 400 pages too long, and is filled with a bunch of needless, often pointless scenes. I suppose, maybe, Cronin needs this stuff, cause it might pop up in books 2 and three (due, apparently, in 2012 and 2014), but right now, it all seems just filler between the first 250 pages, and the last 100 or so.

As I write this, I scratch my head and search my brain to figure out why this book was so hugely popular last summer when it came out in hardcover and why it appeared on so many Top 10 lists for 2010. It’s not well written, and nowhere near approaches the classic end-of-the-world novels like The Stand, On the Beach, or The Road. It fails to scare and, what I consider its biggest flaw, it fails for the reader to care about anyone.

3 Comments

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  1. July 15, 2011, 4:28 pm

    I liked “The Passage” a lot, but I can see what you mean about the pace dropping off after the first third of the book comes to its conclusion. I don’t agree that the characters in the middle were bland, and I cared very much for several of the inmates, Wolgast, Amy, and the computer genius whose name currently escapes me (been a couple months since I read it). I found the middle section to be different but equally enthralling. I was certainly never bored.

    However I can relate to your irritation at seeing it on so many damned lists! I feel the same way about that bleeping Cormac McCarthy book you praise above, along with everyone else on the planet. WHY?! “The Road” is a book that I will never understand. I read it out of a feeling of obligation, and I’m glad I got through it, but just because a book is about misery does that mean it has to be a miserable read?! Talk about a boring, depressing novel, with basically no ending. So much work reading it for absolutely no payoff. Oh well. To each his own. Perhaps the fact that I was slogging through snow in NYC and feeling rather destitute myself when I read it wasn’t helping. Perhaps I’ll try it again someday.

    That said, perhaps you’ll like the Ridley Scott film version of “The Passage” when it comes out in a few years.

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  2. Vuthy says
    August 3, 2011, 4:30 pm

    I completely agree. As a huge fan of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, I picked up this book based on a billboard here in Los Angeles that had some quote from Stephen King about how great “The Passage” is. Like King, I find Cronin to be a bit wordy at times but the basic story was interesting. And then – BAM – just as the action was picking up and I was beginning to care about what happens to Amy and Wolfgast, we’re transported to boring, highly descriptive chapters with new characters I don’t care about. I’m sure I’ll finish it but I’m left scratching my head also at the rave reviews. A friend read this previously and he feels the same way.

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  3. Nina Hettema says
    February 24, 2012, 2:28 pm

    I am almost entirely in agreement with you. I did find the book a page-turner, as promised, but the urge to read on was almost like an annoying itch, rather than the heart-racing thrill I would feel for a better book. About a third of the way into the book I started to feel that I was going to be let down by it in the long run, but the maddening itch (to find out what happens, or see if the book gets any better?) kept me going to the end. There were scenes, too many of them, where I could sense the author “smelling” the (inevitable) Hollywood movie. God, how I HATE that! Such whoredom is too, too prevalent, and has ruined some otherwise fine books for me. The ending was a gigantic letdown. If I had done some background work I would have known that this was the first of a series, but as it was, I was not satisfied at all, which I would have been with a better-written book, albeit a cliffhanger. Reader, it’s not The Stand, that’s for sure. I’m done.

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