Favorite Books of the 2010s: The Passage by Justin Cronin

This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.


The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010)

The United States is overrun by vampire-like beings infected by a genetically engineered virus.

The vampires in The Passage are monsters, pure and simple — monsters with a tiny glimmer of humanity trapped deep inside. They glow in the dark, have mouths full of sword-like teeth, leap out of the darkness and are possessed by an overwhelming desire to rip your head off. The original twelve were created by giving an experimental virus to death-row inmates in an attempt by the military to create a super-soldier. They escaped — along with Patient Zero, the first person to contract the virus and survive — and brought about the total collapse of the United States within a year. Only a few people survived in isolated compounds. And then there was number thirteen, a six-year-old girl named Amy who received the final version of the virus, which turned her into something that was not quite vampire and not quite human. A savior, perhaps?

Fast-forward almost a hundred years, to the California mountains, where the descendants of a small group of children evacuees are holding on. The only thing keeping them from annihilation is a cordon of bright lights surrounding their enclosure. These people have never seen the stars. And their batteries are failing. At just that moment, Amy re-enters the story and sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in a small group leaving the Colony on a quest for something — they’re not sure what — but they hope it will save them all.

The Passage has it all. There are long sections that are so suspenseful I literally could not put the book down. Some scenes, such as the original vampires’ escape and the evacuation of a train of children from a burning city, are the most harrowing stuff I’ve read in years. Other sections are downright poetic. And Cronin really makes the reader care about his characters, in nail-biting fashion, since they are up against overwhelming odds.

It’s inevitable that we should compare this post-apocalyptic epic to an earlier one: Stephen King’s The Stand. I think many of the similarities are deliberate on Cronin’s part. He too takes his characters on a journey across the American West, with critical stops in Las Vegas and Colorado. He too tries to seduce them to evil through their dreams. There is even a Mother Abigail figure, a hundred-year-old woman named Auntie. But I think it is in developing his characters where Cronin really learned from King. He takes the time to fill in each person’s back story and help us readers understand their hopes, fears, and deepest desires, so we know exactly why they do the things they do. He makes each member of a large cast of characters come to life, and we really care what about happens to them.

I can’t help comparing The Passage to another vampire story as well: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. In that story, the few human survivors battle endlessly against the vampire-like creatures that have overrun the world. But unlike I Am Legend, The Passage offers some hope of a good outcome. Some parts of the story are written as pages from different characters’ journals, presented a thousand years later at a conference. By that time, it seems that the vampires have become part of history, although we don’t find out how this comes about. At least not yet.

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