Book Review: “The Passage” and “The Twelve”

I just finished reading The Twelve, the second book in what will eventually be author Justin Cronin’s trilogy that began with the 2010 release of The Passage. The trilogy’s conclusion, The City of Mirrors, isn’t due until sometime next year…and that seems like an eternity.

If you’re already a fan of speculative fiction, you no doubt are familiar with these books. On the other hand, The Passage escaped my attention for two years, so perhaps there’s some value in restating the obvious.

A comparison with Stephen King’s The Stand is inevitable, and a quote by King graces the cover of the first book. Both novels employ a vast array of characters trying to survive an apocalyptic event that irrevocably changes the face of society and culture (is that redundant?). Both events arise from man’s clumsy attempts to manipulate nature to achieve dubious ends – we never learn, do we? – and both trace multiple subplots as a remnant of souls do their best to either regain the high ground for humanity, or turn the disaster to selfish gain. Both prominently feature some apparently obligatory supernatural themes. In other words, they’re both variations on the classic “good vs. evil” theme.

But, frankly, The Stand doesn’t stand up well in comparison. King is a popular writer, but he isn’t necessarily a good writer. He’s formulaic and often unnuanced, and the reader isn’t likely to get lost in the beauty of his prose. The Stand was an epic novel in its own right, in its own time, but it had the advantage of being early on the scene of the genre. (It didn’t help that the movie adaptation was a made-for-TV version that starred Molly freakin’ Ringwald. Is that King’s fault? Probably not, but, still…)

Cronin, on the other hand, is the real deal, an author with legitimate literary credentials – not to minimize King’s credentials of selling eighteen zillion copies of his books, which buys lots of immunity to hack blog critics like yours truly – and he proves that you can apply beautiful and moving prose to scenes that also scare the living daylights out of the reader. Plus, he’s a Texan, albeit a transplant, having been an English professor at Rice University and still residing in Houston. A good deal of the action in the second book takes place in Texas – focused on Kerrville, of all places, but Midland/Odessa gets a couple of mentions as well, albeit nothing that the Chambers of Commerce will be publishing in their annual reports .

I’m intentionally not going to reveal the basic plot for Cronin’s trilogy, even though it’s all over the interwebz if you care to read other less considerate reviews; I don’t want to spoil any surprises. The first volume pretty much requires that you invest in the next one, but the second one has a very satisfactory ending that, despite the angst implied in the first paragraph above, makes the wait for the final volume bearable. (This stands in stark contrast to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, which is positively criminal in the way each volume ends maddeningly and without the slightest sympathy for the reader’s absolute need for the next fix…um…installment.)

If you’re seeking a couple of page-turners that will consume days of your life, and you wish Stephen King didn’t rely quite so heavily on evil clowns (I know; more redundancy) and/or precocious-but-disabled children, you’ll find the first two books of Cronin’s trilogy to be a suitable investment.