This book sucked ass. I don’t usually have such deeply held negative opinions about the books I choose to read – after all, I’m a pretty good judge of what I like so I’ll usually find something about a book I like even if it wasn’t that hot overall. But guys. This book. Sucked. Ass. I’ll try and articulate why this book sucked so much ass but there’s every chance this is going to degenerate into an unhinged rant, so I apologise in advance for anyone who thought they might find a hint of intelligent conversation or civilised literary criticism here.
Right. Ok. Let’s take a deep breath and wind back to the old overview. The Passage is the first book in Justin Cronin’s critically-acclaimed (critically fucking acclaimed!) trilogy of the same name. It’s a post-apocalyptic ‘epic’ (the blurb’s words, not mine) about a military grade virus the US army tries to weaponise, but it (obviously) gets set loose on the population and things go tits up, essentially turning people into bioengineered vampires. Sounds like a pretty sick premise right? Unfortunately, as I may already have said, this book sucked ass. The pacing is absolute dog shit for one thing. I listened to the audiobook and it took not one, not two, not even three or four, but ten fucking hours into this godforsaken hell hole of a book for the inciting incident to even happen. I wouldn’t care, but the very premise of the story is the virus getting loose. The blurb even says “First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment”. ‘First’! Anyway, I consequently spent the first ten hours of this book waiting for the thing the book is actually about to happen, so I always felt like I was waiting for the story to actually start.
During that time we meet a bunch of characters, the most important of whom is Amy, a six year old girl who FBI agent Brad Wolgast is tasked with ‘recovering’ and bringing to the military lab where the virus is being tested on humans. Most of the other test subjects are criminals on death row with no family or friends, who the FBI can secret away without it ever officially happening, and I never understood why the final subject was a six year old girl. If that was ever explained then I missed it. We learn about Wolgast’s past, his failed marriage that ran aground when his own young daughter died, setting the stage for how his feelings about Amy develop. We get to see some of the criminals he visits in prison, including Anthony Carter, who was sentenced to death after being accused of killing the woman who employed him as a gardener. There’s a bunch of other people too, including Amy’s mother, a nun called Sister Lacey and Dr Lear, who leads the virus programme, but honestly, at this stage of the book I ended up finding everything that was going on immensely frustrating because it was just ten hours of build up waiting for the story to start.
I just hated the writing style as well. Just long-winded, verbose, irrelevant nonsense a lot of the time. I feel like an editor could have been like:
“Hey Justin, why are you giving an in-depth play-by-play of the basket ball game that’s on the TV in the bar where your characters are drinking?”
“Why are you giving a detailed physical description of this dog from a character’s past that you briefly alluded to as a throwaway remark?”
“Why, on three separate occasions, have you just given a page long list of people’s surnames who got turned into vampires?”
“Why are you giving us an excerpt from a town watch logbook where the first ten entries just say ‘No sign of vampires’? This isn’t interesting Justin, this is pretentious, self-indulgent wank”.
It reminded me of The Stand in that respect. And I did not like that book one bit. I remember a particular part of The Stand that was just a daily list of how far the characters had walked that day and how much further they had left to walk to get to their destination. Just mind-numbingly pointless, boring garbage. Feel like Cronin took direct inspiration from that section to write his logbook entries. In fact it reminded me of The Stand in a lot of respects, some of which were just a little too on the nose. Post-apocalyptic plague epic is a genre to itself so that’s by the by, but it felt like Cronin just wished he had written The Stand so set out to mimic it in almost every way, from King’s meandering writing style down to particular storytelling techniques and even specific details. So for example the story pivots around the ‘good’ side centred on Amy, and the ‘bad’ side, centred on the most powerful of the vampires, an ex-con named Babcock, who somehow exhibits mind control powers over the other ‘virals’, as they’re referred to, much like the good and bad sides coalesce around Mother Abigail and Randall Flag in The Stand. Other specific details that you can generously refer to as ‘homage’ to King’s novel include an old mystic black woman with inexplicable powers of precognition and even a reference to The Passage’s own ‘The Dark Man’ which was just too much for me.
Character-wise I just didn’t care about anyone either, and I think this was largely down to the point of view Cronin chose for the story. So basically, the book is divided into two main parts – the period leading up to the outbreak followed by a roughly ninety year time jump to a time when everything has gone to shit. The only connective tissue between these two periods is Amy, whose lifespan is vastly lengthened because of the virus and still has the appearance of a teenager ninety years later. Except none of the story is told from her point of view. In fact, we see it from everyone but Amy’s point of view. This just had the effect of distancing me from the only constant character in the book, and once that time jump came (which I wasn’t expecting) I never felt able to settle in with the new cast because I didn’t know if we were just going to abandon them again in a few hundred pages. I dunno man, I just felt like Cronin put up every barrier he could between me and his characters.
As with any negative book review, this whole thing is subjective and I didn’t like The Passage because I don’t like this style of storytelling. But a lot of people clearly do, given the status The Stand enjoys and how critically-acclaimed The Passage itself is. It’s similarity to The Stand was a big negative for me, but if you’re someone who liked that book then I think you’ll almost definitely like The Passage as well. In fact I’ve already spoken to someone about it who saw my negative comparison to The Stand and they said it made them want to read it. I’ve spoke in negative terms about how much Cronin ripped off King, down to specific details, but even there my bias leaks in, because I’m a massive fan of Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones, which is essentially just repackaged fantasy Peaky Blinders and rips off a lot of stuff from that show. And I mean a lot. It just so happens that I liked Peaky Blinders, so seeing that idea again in a fantasy form was something I enjoyed. Which again, shows that if you know what you like and King’s ideas and writing style is what you like, then you will like this book. Obviously though, it was not to my tastes.
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