Book Review: ‘the Twelve’ by Justin Cronin

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In 2010, Justin Cronin, a graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writer’s Workshop and acclaimed author of several award-winning if sentimental novels, finally hit a literary home run. The Passage, the first of a projected trilogy, generated fevered enthusiasm, slathered with praise, and even earned a place amid the “Ten Best Novels of the Year” according to Library Journal and Time.

Trembling fans and “swept away” critics

The book lived up to its hype. A vampire novel that didn’t rely on the drawn-out sexual tension of True Blood, and wasn’t fraught with the high school romance of Twilight, The Passage felt a story written for adults. Apocalyptic where other vampire tales were merely dramatic, The Passage featured an epic scope that had some drawing comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand.

In fact, the novel managed to do something few vampire books have accomplished since Bram Stroker’s Dracula: It actually scared readers, so it’s no wonder fans can hardly wait for the release of the movie (which so far hasn’t reached production).

Book two: a smash or a smash hit?

The second installment, The Twelve, picks up where The Passage left off, but also explores many new characters, including some who had only cameo in the first book. Both novels leap back and forth through time with relative ease, designating an era after the vampires (better known as “virals,” because they were born of a virus) with A.V.

In a novel with such a broad narrative scope — some characters live during the first days of the outbreak, and others 100 years later — there are plenty of deaths. The brevity of a character’s life doesn’t hinder Cronin, who impartially delves into the minutia of each individual’s thoughts and experiences.

It can be a jarring tactic, at first, for readers who are accustomed to more traditional character deployment, but most readers should settle into it — which is good, because this particular device is crucial for Cronin’s success.

Sugar-simple spirituality

Much like The Stand, Cronin’s novels hinge on two types of supernatural beings: those that represent “evil” (the vampires), and those that represent “good” (God and her chosen). We are supposed to understand that each individual’s life and death is part of his or her destiny, part of a larger plan.

That’s why even the most fleeting character is given such nuance and individual voice. This is simultaneously a strength in Cronin’s writing style, and the place where both books, particularly his latest installment,

take dangerous risks.

Unfortunately, even attempts to complicate the issue of good vs. evil — asserting, for example, that the virals aren’t inherently bad but lost souls who must be guided home — may come across as thinly veiled attempts at evangelizing.

What appeared as a subtle undercurrent in the first book becomes crashing waves in the second. There’s no soft touch to the overt spirituality promoted in The Twelve.

A gambit for a higher power

“Good” characters are described as prayerful and possessing faith. God finds physical embodiment in an old woman, but that’s about as liberal as the biblical interpretations get.

It’s frequently been suggested that the books feature characters are on a predestined path. Even the book’s titles are biblically motivated:The Passage refers to Noah’s ark, and The Twelve to the 12 apostles of Christ.

There’s nothing inherently problematic about using biblical tropes to guide the creation of an apocalyptic story. In fact, for a Christian author, it’s perfectly natural.

Unfortunately, unlike the C.S. Lewis epic, The Chronicles of Narnia, an overtly drawn Christian metaphor written by a well-known Christian scholar, the Passage trilogy attempts to sell itself as secular genre fiction: something we know by the end of The Twelve, that this novel is not.

An extreme approach

If we’re to follow the logic taken for granted by the novels, then we must conclude that science is the devil’s tool. The team that originally awakened the sleeping virus in the first novel were a group of scientists, intent on curing diseases.

What they manifested instead results in a great purge of humanity, which the novel compares to the biblical flood in the time of Noah. This is problematic, because we don’t know why the earth deserves this second purification.

Whereas the biblical flood was God’s direct response to the wickedness of man, the viral surge in Cronin’s novels seems to be God’s arbitrary punishment for pursuing scientific research.

Caught off guard, not swept away

Remember the season finale of Lost, when you realized you had just finished watching the longest-ever religious metaphor unfold? Remember feeling that you’d been taken for a ride?

The concluding book in the Passage series, The City of Mirrors, is due out in 2014, and while it’s unlikely to feature happy families of the post-viral future, building white picket fences and shopping for household appliances, it will probably come bearing “good news.”

Still, there’s hope for the thoughtful reader. The series could always be salvaged by a narrative that rounds out the heavy Christian influences to arrive at a more secular appeal.

Many successful science fiction authors have dreamed up ways in which tinkering with technology, genetics, and science could come back to wreak havoc and devastation against humanity. They just managed to compose without any proselytizing.