The Passage was the hit novel of 2010. Everyone read it. Everyone raved about it. Everyone waited in eager anticipation for the next novel in the trilogy (The Twelve, which is out this October). But I skipped it. No particular reason — just never got to it.
So having picked up an ARC of The Twelve at BEA, I figured I'd finally give The Passage a go — a first step in getting over my hesitation of reading long series before all the books are out.
And you what? It's not half bad after all. It's a familiar story, to be sure — a government experiment with a virus wipes out most of the population, leaving a small band of survivors to carry the torch for humanity. A "chosen one" — a girl named Amy — helps this band of noble straggles make a "passage" across the country to try to find out who she is, and if humanity really does have a future.
Of course, the comparison's to Stephen King's The Stand are inevitable. But there is one key difference — whereas The Stand was a pitched battle of good vs. evil, The Passage is simply good (or is it?) vs. vampires (or virals, smokes, or dracs, as they're referred to in the novel); mindless creatures programmed to kill humans so they can survive. So, they're no more evil than a polar bear that kills salmon to live. The only evil characters are the government henchman who start the viral weapons program at the beginning of the novel. And then, it's pretty obvious that they're evil.
So, again, you know this story. But what sets The Passage apart is that, with the exception some wooden dialogue here and there, The Passage is better written by about a factor of 20 than just about any of those genre humankind-wipeout stories. Cronin is a master of pacing — writing action scenes and moody, atmospheric "set-up scenes" with equal aplomb. Here's an example of Cronin's writing, a quote I really liked: "Courage is easy when the alternative is getting killed. It's hope that's hard."
There's nothing extraordinarily heady here — it makes for great plane reading. There's action. There's romance. There's blood and gore and death. But with hints of religion and the philosophy of history, there are interesting questions the novel asks its readers to consider. How seriously do we take stories that are ostensibly allegories? Are they really allegories after all? (Noah's ark, for instance?)
Regarding history, Cronin often includes diary entries from the main characters that are presented at a conference a thousand years later. It's an interesting tactic that makes us consider the two types of storytelling — the first-person from the characters' perspectives, and Cronin's own omniscient perspective. Normally, this shift in narration bugs me. Here, it worked.
I'd say this is a four-out-of-five stars novel. I really enjoyed it and read it quickly (mostly on planes). It loses a star for slipping into the too-familiar from time to time. But overall, highly recommended.