Does Justin Cronin's ultra-trendy 700-page vampire epic live up to the hype?

The Passage by Justin Cronin is getting raves from people like Stephen King, and Ridley Scott has already optioned the post-apocalyptic vampire epic from the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning literary author. But is it any good? Bookslut's Janet Potter evaluates. Spoilers ahead...

No one in the publishing or entertainment world can be blamed for getting pretty excited when a vampire apocalypse trilogy lands on their desk. The Passage, coming in just shy of 800 pages, is the first installment of that trilogy, with a movie already in the works. Justin Cronin has written two previous books, both short, character-driven novels, one of which earned him the PEN/Hemingway, so he's taken quite a leap into the realm of sci-fi/horror/thriller. The question of the The Passage is whether that leap is taken ably, or whether he's written a book of the moment.

The book opens with a handful of storylines barreling towards each other. The government has discovered a virus, you see, that can turn humans into immortal fighting machines, and it is doing this in a secret bunker in the mountains. So far the virus has been administered to twelve death row inmates. FBI agent Brad Wolgast, the everyman of this section, travels around with his partner convincing these inmates to sign their lives away to the government. He has a few qualms about the operation, but no real objections until he discovers that the thirteenth subject he has to pick up is a six year old girl, Amy.

Wolgast and Amy forge an immediate bond and he stays by her side even after he takes her to the bunker, where she receives the virus. Inevitably, the test subjects break out and start destroying the world. Although the term is avoided, even mocked, in the book, the virus essentially turns a person into a vampire. Those infected are bigger, stronger, faster, like to drink blood, and can infect others. Although Amy is given the virus, she doesn't undergo the same transformation. She may even be some kind of living antidote, and during the vampire breakout Wolgast and she manage to escape.

Then, all of a sudden, you're reading The Road. Wolgast and Amy live in an isolated cabin in the woods for a year, chopping wood and eating canned food and reading to each other. The vampires are multiplying and the nation's defenses collapse. Before long there is no more news, as any remaining survivors have gone into hiding.

Then you skip ahead 92 years to a colony of survivors. It's the second time that Cronin wipes the slate clean, essentially gets rid of all his characters, and starts over in what feels like a completely new novel. This one sticks, though, thankfully, and you're with the colonists for the rest of the book. They live in a walled city, protected by enormous lights that don't exactly keep the virals from trying to climb the walls, but usually disorient them enough so they can be shot before they get in. And yes, "virals" is what they're called now. Cronin takes a novelist's due pleasure in inventing the structure and jargon of a new civilization, with their own profanity and way of telling time.

The colony is working pretty well. Besides some small instances of unrequited love, nepotism, or incompetence, the colony is successful, with a noticeable lack of villainy. It's even post-racial. Perhaps Cronin thinks that the virals provide all the antagonism the colonists need, because not a one of them is a bad person. There are some losers, but no bad guys. (The first thing they do when they start making the movie is turn some of these guys bad.) It's as if this post-apocalyptic band is so busy enduring that they've been rubbed clean of vice, experiencing adorable confusion when they come across things like a Las Vegas casino or romance novels.

But perhaps most importantly for the novel, they are unproven. Peter, our main guy, has a legend for a father and a tough guy for an older brother. He is ripe for a hero's quest, and the world needs a hero. The colony's power supply is running out, so the colonists can't stay safely behind their walls much longer. On the strength of a clue as to how they might defeat the virals, seven of them leave the colony.

Up to this point, The Passage has been first a thriller, then a two-person drama, and has been good reading in both incarnations. But when Peter and his friends leave the colony, Cronin leaves behind the modest aim of a well-written futuristic vampire page-turner and adopts the classic, mythical premise that civilization is almost over, but there's a small chance it can be saved. He's shooting for epic. He puts himself in the field of Stephen King and Frank Herbert, even Tolkien, when he tasks himself with a mammoth fate-of-the-world trilogy.

He sets about his task dutifully. His use of common narrative motifs is encyclopedic: the folksy wisdom of an old black woman, a pure-hearted boy who can't live up to his dead father, opposites attract, a love triangle, a rich suburban wife in a loveless marriage, a wizened army general, a prostitute with a heart of gold, a nun with a heart of stone, the unlikely bond between a single man and a child, even buddy cops. Short of a loyal dog finding its way home (a horse comes close but doesn't make it), he uses almost every conceit in the western canon. He doesn't freshen up any of these devices. He uses them like so many prerequisites in the epic storyteller's checklist. His skill is in the dexterity with which he layers all these stories together into a believable anthropology of civilization's demise. He may be following a recipe, but it's a good recipe, and he decides not to tamper with it.

What's interesting about Cronin's brand of apocalyptic epic is that it's completely man-made. Even the enemy are formerly human. There are no wizards or aliens to act as sages for our heroes, the closest they get to an oracle is old black women (two of them) who have survived from before the outbreak and trade in enigmatic conversation. Drama doesn't play out in Middle Earth or on the planet Dune, it's in places like Colorado and Maine. Some of the elements of The Passage that strain credibility could be explained away by the trappings of science fiction. The preternatural goodness of Peter and his friends would make more sense if they were all hobbits and centaurs, say, and their continual ability to fight off hordes of lethal vampires would be easier to believe if they had magic weapons.

The science fiction of The Passage, however, is all on the side of the virals. The colonists are just really good people. Their journey is relayed as a series of singular, episodic conflicts, and each has its own suspense and service to the greater narrative, but less than 30 pages from the end of the book Peter essentially says, "now we know what we have to do." The Passage, like any trilogy's opening book, is one very long piece of scene-setting. The characters are introduced, the mythology is established, and the major task at hand — that of understanding how the virals came to be and how to stop them before the world ends — is slowly pieced together. But most of the major action is yet to come. At the start of their quest Peter and his friends were hoping to save themselves, or save the colony. Now they've come to realize they have a chance to save humanity.

I don't know which was more prevalent in Cronin's mind while he was writing The Passage, the movie adaptation or the sequel. The barren landscapes, human vs. monster fight scenes, and band of seven attractive young survivors beg to be put on screen. At the same time, the potential of Cronin's trilogy has yet to be realized. The episodes of The Passage are page-turners, and are tied up neatly, but the larger conflicts of the trilogy have only been introduced. (The novel ends, in fact, with at least four different cliffhangers.) Cronin's treatment of the colonists' deepening understanding of the virals and their quest to bring them down will be the final merit of the series. If one of them ever shows a character flaw, it wouldn't be the worst thing.

In the end, I think I'm rooting for Cronin. The Passage is a sprawling work of suspense, stuffed with every type of character or subplot under the sun, and still manages to have forward momentum. The underlying mythology of the trilogy is solid, and he's planted seeds of conflict and enigma that can easily fill two more volumes. There's no reason to think that he can't pull off the epic masterpiece he set out to write. I hope he does.

This post by Janet Potter originally appeared at Bookslut.