It seems that I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic, anti-utopian stuff with young female leads ;). The Passage reminds me in many ways of The Girl With All The Gifts or McCarthy’s The Road, although the popular comparisons to The Stand are also pretty well-founded.
The Passage received a lot of buzz back in 2010 – compared to work of Michael Crichton and praised by King himself, Cronin’s book quickly wound up on bestsellers’ lists. The filming rights to this book – and two next as well, as The Passage is the first installment in a trilogy – were apparently secured by Scott Free Productions even before the book was finished.
Is the book worth the praise? The answer to this, as usual, is complicated ;). I must confess, my initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the fact that I have already read the second installment. Oh boy, that’s something I will fully review in my next entry, but for now let’s concentrate on the first book, as if it were still the only one, fresh and full of promises.
Because The Passage in itself is actually a good book. It’s a mash-up of genres, a post-apocalyptic horror/sf road novel with vampires, elements of anti-utopia and chunks of a military thriller, and it all works surprisingly well, even dunked in the heavy philosophical/theological sauce Cronin is so fond of.
The story is quite simple. Somewhere in the depths of Bolivian jungle there still exists a remnant of a lethal virus which has an ability to transform human organisms into something very hard to kill and almost immortal. A scientific expedition protected by the US military gets decimated by bloodthirsty bats and the disease they carry – and only a few people return from the jungle – but they bring back a proof of their claims – a living, breathing vampire, one of their own expedition who made it through the transformation. The mandatory bloodlust comes as a small price for the enhanced strength, prolonged lifespan and some telepathic surprises the newly made vampires possess – at least in the minds of the US military who, using the blood of the first infected scientist, conducted the experiments on a dozen of death row inmates. Of course, the inevitable mishap is on the way – none of the newly created vampires likes to be locked up in a concrete bunker miles underground, and with their newfound telepathic powers of persuasion they are able to create their own Renfields who, among bloody mayhem and stink of fear and piss and steaming guts set them free. But before the whole world (or, more precisely, the North American continent) is consumed by bloodsuckers, there comes another – Amy, a small girl, injected with a different strain of virus, who becomes the only hope for mankind.
Fast forward ninety seven years to meet the rest of the main protagonists – because, as in classical post-apocalyptic tale, there must be more than one POV to fully illustrate the shattered world. They are inhabitants of the Colony: a small, tightly guarded settlement in the West, one of the very few islands of humanity in the sea of virals – because that’s the most popular name given to the new rulers of the world. The Colony is in for some pretty big changes, the biggest of them being the arrival of a mysterious girl from nowhere. Together they will start a journey through the Wild West, which will lead them to discovery of some very intriguing truths about the world they came to live in.
It doesn’t sound very original – and by gods, it isn’t. But it is well, crisply written, with a nice balance between the action and the psychology. Even more importantly, Cronin manages to develop a really nuanced and believable (though not at first) father-daughter relationship which forms the center, the true heart of this novel. Bits of poems prefacing each part of the novel are a nice touch, giving a bit of whimsy and melancholy to otherwise rather bloody and gritty novel.
The Passage is a hefty novel, a real lethal weapon for the bibliophiles: the hardback with almost 800 pages, the paperback with almost 900, and there are definitely places where it could have been cut a bit shorter. Still, it is a gripping read, the action flows smoothly and especially the first part of the novel makes for a truly interesting read. The worldbuilding is very good. Not perfect, but with an amount of detail and care that goes well above average. I enjoyed the new, updated version of vampires, the simple but not improbable explanation of their existence, and the ruined, post-apocalyptic world their emergence left in its wake, with its distinctly Orwellian flavor.
But there are also warning signs along the way – the metaphysical/theological stuff heavily skewed toward the Christian belief getting truly cumbersome especially where sister Lacey is involved – and some unattractive stereotypes raising their heads as well, though I don’t think they got there intentionally. Honestly, after having read the second installment, I have a feeling that this is something that only a privileged WASP could have so blithely inject into his world as a given, without a second thought. Especially that this world is something that is being rebuilt from ruins. Why in the world all those stereotypes must be there as an irremovable part of this new reality? The warning sounds change into blaring alarms in the second installment, but in the first novel one can mostly ignore them if one is so predisposed.
The main characters are believable even if somewhat stereotypical. Amy and Wolgast are by far the strongest protagonists, although the inhabitants of the Colony form a solid supporting cast. A certain care from the author to create some kind of gender equality is detectable in The Passage, and to some extent it works – we get the “strong ass-kicking girl” and the mousy, dependable one to balance things nicely. There are also some half-hearted attempts at romance, but I couldn’t say they’re successful – most of the stuff takes place behind the scenes, in the form of a diary written by one of the protagonists. The singular strength of this novel lies in my opinion in the father-daugther relationship between the duo of main protagonists.
And yet, The Passage is an enjoyable read. It has moments where it shines, in the swift and gripping action scenes and in the more intimate, subtle moments as well. I tried to keep to the score I originally awarded to this book. After all, it’s not The Passage’s fault that the second installment, The Twelve, is so much worse.