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The Passage by Justin Cronin

1/07/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Passage in the USA - or Buy The Passage in the UK

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pub: Ballantine Books. 766 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-345-50496-8.

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Justin Cronin's novel, 'The Passage', is the build up to the end results of an apocalyptic decision. Twelve condemned prisoners and a six year-old girl called Amy are picked to become subjects of a covert medical experiment which is only hinted at in the novel. The author very cleverly shows events more or less from the side-lines as to what is going on, namely the creation of a science-based kind of vampire, called smokes amongst other names, and Amy, a small girl who appears to be of but not of their kind. Whether it was planned that way, Amy's role not the story, or not isn't actually explained. It's left to you, the reader, to work out what. Indeed, after the transformation, you only really see any hint of these creatures from a human perspective because Cronin appears to be more comfortable with the, shall we say, more close-up human experience. In some respects, this tends to make the story a little one-sided as all you really know is that the enemy isn't us. Seen as a plague, the military attempt to nuke them out of existence and there are very few remnants of human society left in the aftermath.

Many years later, one of these human outposts discovers Amy wandering by and then there is an urge to get supplies from elsewhere and see where she came from so a bunch of the younger adults have a series of adventures crossing Nevada to see what or who else is out there. A lot of this is essentially spoiler ground and the story turns more into a quest of survival with several threads drawn together at the end.

Cronin's style or rather the way he conveys the history of each character at the beginning is very reminiscent of thriller writer Jim Thompson although the continual writing depth is always in danger of encroaching on pace and emotional depth. Indeed, that tends to become a little bit of a problem. Cronin has a very good descriptive detailed eye in his words so you end up reading everything but it over-powers the pace and characters so they become secondary to the prose, especially towards the end of the book where this reviewer feels he skimps a little logic to ensure everything fits in. As there is supposed to be more books in this series, no doubt Cronin will sort this out later.

Having so much intense detail and then something doesn't quite make sense can make things a little chaotic. I mean, if you're on foot crossing much of the hot Nevada Desert during the day, your nutritional needs would be rather high and even carrying your own food and water supplies, you're going to need a lot more than is hinted here and yet inexperienced they come through unscathed and even food to spare. If you're going to adhere to normal limitations then you'd have expected some problems not a walk in the park. Certain late revelations tend to have similar problems. You have to accept what is going on and just go along for the ride essentially and you're not obliged to analyse too much.

The very occasional dry piece of humour comes out. I liked the very good observation about Ed. Time-Life who appears to have written a lot of books in the settlement library.

Despite its length, 'The Passage' is actually a fairly decent read. It's only when Cronin trips up over himself that I get the little niggles above. Once you accept the prose style, the tendency to look beyond it finds such problems and I think he could have gotten away with a book half this size. In many respects, the two halves of this book could be treated as separate stories and I was more impressed with the first half, especially when the FBI agent has a change of heart and wants to protect Amy from harm, is more thriller than Science Fiction. The latter half is there to give the SF edge but so much of it is on the side-lines that you don't really see enough of it to really think they're in real trouble. I'd have been more worried about surviving the hot weather than the smokes.

Take that into account should you select this novel be wary of men in white coats who want to inject you with green serums.

GF Willmetts

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