It is with great anticipation that I have awaited THE PASSAGE, an apocalyptic vampire thriller written by acclaimed author Justin Cronin. This book represents a massive undertaking and one of much greater significance than any simple chronicle of monsters. Here, a benevolent man opens "Pandora's Box" and releases an evil that will consume the world. The creation of vampires impacts Earth like a bomb, as devastating as any cataclysmic event imaginable. Readers will be left wondering whether humans will ultimately survive this, or if we were even meant to. But as long as there are some who do, hope remains in the dream that one day we will live courageously and become free again.
The devastating fall of mankind begins with a U.S. military operation where a scientist makes an unprecedented discovery in the heart of a Bolivian jungle. It is in hopes of finding a cure for humanity's ailments that Dr. Jonas Lear encounters a new species and manages to transport it to U.S. soil, locked up within an Army compound. This is a virus that stimulates enlargement of the thymus gland in humans, making growth of new tissue possible. The military plans to test it and pursues desperate test subjects. Twelve men consent freely to this, convicted murderers on death row, and a six-year-old girl is also found who is seen as a particularly desirable subject. After a period of confinement, the criminals become "jumpers," feeding on animals under lockdown in high-security cells until they manage to get out; no one anticipates what they are capable of until it is too late. Only the girl remains, and all hell breaks loose outside. The project directors had it planned so perfectly, but in the end, that reasoning is revealed to be simple overconfidence.
"In her mind's eye, she saw it, saw it all at last: the rolling armies and the flames of battle, the graves and pits and dying cries of a hundred million souls; the spreading darkness, like a black wing stretching over the earth; the last bitter hours of cruelty and sorrow, and terrible, final flights; death's great dominion over all, and at the last, the empty cities, becalmed by the silence of a hundred years. Already these things were coming to pass."
No amount of intelligence or power is enough to offer protection, and hiding is not an option. The best chance people have is to make a concerted effort to save a few, and those who live will become the first colony of the World After. Time is begun anew, and civilizations become skeletons, fading from memory. There are no longer such things as cities or countries, and humans have become the most vulnerable species on Earth. Survivors find sanctuary behind massive walls, and a new social system is formed based on protection from what lies waiting outside. A few lucky children are sent to the colony but without their parents, the guards becoming guardians, armed with lights and weapons. Walls alone are not enough to keep the virals out, and the colonists depend upon electricity to repel them. The Watch are the best and bravest, but are still killed at regular intervals. Penalties are harsh for those who break the law, and perpetrators are punished by ejection from the walls, a fate worse than death. Memories fade in time, and mankind no longer ventures into the night to see the stars or the sky. The only knowledge retained is that needed for survival.
But life goes on. Couples pair, babies are born, and children are raised, locked in the confines of the sanctuary and told nothing of the dangers until they are capable of mounting a defense. Colonists are divided according to task, and large numbers are assigned to the Watch, venturing out in daylight to find supplies and useful items --- an act of tremendous bravery every time as "jumpers" lurk in the shadows even during the day. Colonists call them "virals" and "smokes," and they come from above with such force and speed that it is a miraculous feat to kill one. It is said that they have no souls, and those infected return home to commit murder. Everywhere "slims" are encountered, still-decaying bodies, but the Watch must continue to search for batteries to sustain their depleting power supply. If they can't find a way to mount a permanent defense, mankind will not survive this.
Reportedly THE PASSAGE was inspired by the author's daughter, who asked that he "write a story about a girl who saves the world." This seems to be six-year-old Amy Harper Bellafonte, a largely silent, passive figure who ages less than a decade in a century and remains shrouded in mystery. Her importance is just beginning to be understood in the first installment, and I cannot wait for the sequel to find out what will happen and what Amy's role will be in this startling apocalyptic series. There is an explosive quality to this book that destroys conventional thought, leaving your mind operating on a plane of simple survival. The impact of the reader's connection with the characters is incredible --- heroes and victims are all people audiences will feel they know as they move forward or live out their final moments. Experiences are expectedly grim, and there are one or two characters in whose minds you may not want to be trapped. Not to worry, though; they will be gone soon enough! I was completely captivated by this and had a crick in my neck for three days after reading it. But it was well worth it, and is a book I continue to be excited about.
THE PASSAGE is bound to become a bestseller, and the film rights already have been acquired by Hollywood. I would expect fans of apocalyptic thrillers and vampire stories to be talking about this one for a long time.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on January 14, 2011