Review: “The City of Mirrors” (The Passage #3) by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors

The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over. And I apologise in advance for all the lame vampire jokes I’m about to crack.

As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with The Passage, an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for over $3.5 million. Fox 2000 landed the first book — then half-written — for $1.75 million for Scott Free to produce. Originally developed as a feature, the producers eventually determined that the property would be better served as a TV series. Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, The Passage was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.

Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got a bit bogged down in the second volume, The Twelve. But those of us hypnotized by this tale were eagerly awaiting the finale. In The City of Mirrors, we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.

But beware all who enter. This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. The City of Mirrors opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended The Twelve. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of a hundred thousand souls in Texas. There are now substantial settlements of beleaguered humans, and the real crisis is not shooting a “smoke” or “drac” or “flyer” in the chest, but creating a feasible tax regime. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”

The epic climax turns out to be bathetic, though the flashback to Patient Zero’s former life as Timothy Fanning is actually rather good. An inset novella, it tells of being a middle-class boy in a prestigious university, beguiled by wealth and crippled by self-doubt. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.

The trilogy exemplifies Anthropocene masochism. When humanity has irreversibly changed the nature of the environment, the environment bites back – literally, in this case. Humanity’s ubiquity conjures fantasies of its own extinction. What survives of us is not, despite the book’s sentimentality, love; but bureaucracy. Throughout the trilogy, the central concerns are planning, management, pragmatism and resource allocation.

The Passage focused on the response to the cataclysm and the strict government of the survivors (for example, children are not allowed to know about the disaster until a certain age). The Twelve was less concerned with the serial killer vampires – most of whom were never even fleshed out – than with the totalitarian regime in Iowa that collaborated with them. The City of Mirrors is more thrilling when dealing with the relationship between the black market and the official economy than the boo-hooing of the principal villain. Even the vampires have to deal with a diminishing food supply and the results of their over-plundering. The monster in the first book tried factory farming humans; the Iowan quislings were very keen on biofuels in the second book, and now Zero himself embarks on a proactive rewilding strategy. In the earlier books, the walled townships could be seen as a prophetic parody of Donald Trump’s isolationism. The third book has everyone except the Americans dead, and they are thus charged with making humanity great again. Zero has a great affection for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Hamlet; the courageous pioneers think Moby-Dick is too difficult, wondering if it is even written in English. The future is delightfully philistine.

Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.

It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.

What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?

Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

Review: “The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

In the 17th century, fugitive slaves founded a free community in the mountains of northeastern Brazil. They called it Palmares. Contemporary accounts describe the courtyards and the fountains, the churches and council meetings of that sprawling settlement, which survived for decades before a concerted military effort by Portuguese colonists wiped it out in 1695.

Fast-forward several centuries, past a nuclear apocalypse that has scrambled climates and countries, and we come to the founding of Palmares Tres, the great pyramid-shaped city on a Brazilian bay, where author Alaya Dawn Johnson sets her new young-adult novel, The Summer Prince. Founded and ruled by women, the city ascends in tiers — from the algae-farm slums at its base to the queen’s quarters at its tip — and it runs on a rich, strange mix of nanotechnology and archaic ritual.

The first queens of Palmares Tres devised a unique system of transferring power: Each woman can rule for up to two five-year terms. Every five years, the city elects a Summer King, who rules for one year with all the charisma of a rock star — and then dies in bloody sacrifice, choosing the next queen with his dying breath; a dying man’s choice is thought to be incorruptible. As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa recalls the first time she saw the sacrifice. “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die,” she says. “Queen Serafina stood in a stark room of wood and stone – the high shrine. I liked her because her skin was dark and glossy and her hair silk-smooth. I had even gotten a Queen Serafina doll for my birthday last June. But today her face was fierce and still; today she held a blade in her hand.”

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual it is to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual it is to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

With all this going on, Johnson doesn’t ignore her world-building. With grace and precision, The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old-fashioned science fiction storytelling. Johnson has created a city that lives and breathes on the page, its samba rhythms and sea breezes balanced by algae stink and rusting spiderbots. Palmares Tres pulses with a vibrant mix of high tech and Brazilian tradition. (Seriously, I want this book to be made into a movie, and I want Bonde do Role to do the soundtrack.) By the time June and Enki pull off their final work of art, you will love the city every bit as much as they do.

Review: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When a novel becomes a “classic”–when it is digested by critics and English teachers and study guide authors into bite-size morsels that can be slurped with a spoon–it undergoes a peculiar type of transformation. For one, it ceases to resemble a novel. Even the messiest, most obstreperous books are reduced to a litany of bullet points, or a single bullet point. Moby Dick: Obsession devours. Crime and Punishment: Guilt corrupts. White Noise: Technology numbs. It can be disorienting to actually read the damn thing, and find out the epitaph is no more descriptive than a chapter title, and a misleading one at that.

It’s even worse when the novel is adapted into a film, especially a good film, as is the case with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since Milos Forman’s adaptation, the line about the novel has been that it is an anti-authoritarian fable, a nonconformists’ bible and a metaphor of repressive America. This view is accurate–Kesey is certainly interested in conformity and its discontents–but incomplete. What Kesey has to say is larger, and far more subversive.

Kesey is not even the first author to write about lunatics who appear saner than those who seek to lock them up. The trope dates as far back as Don Quixote, continues through Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published a year before Kesey’s novel. The nature of the oppression is different in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, however: the inmates in Kesey’s mental ward with one or two exceptions, have asked to be locked away.

Guilt,” says Harding, one of the patients, when asked to explain his decision. “Shame. Fear. Self-belittlement. I discovered at an early age that I was—shall we be kind and say different? I indulged in certain practices that our society regards as shameful. And I got sick. It wasn’t the practices, I don’t think, it was the feeling that the great, deadly, pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me—and the great voice of millions chanting, ‘Shame. Shame. Shame.'”

This is a novel about oppression, but it is also about man’s desire—which at times can become a need, even a compulsion—to take orders. Harding’s explanation horrifies Kesey’s hero, Randle Patrick McMurphy, a charismatic huckster whose arrival at the beginning of the novel disrupts the quiet, domineering rule of Nurse Ratched, the ward’s authoritarian overlord. McMurphy tells his fellow patients that, in order to avoid a hard labour prison sentence, he has convinced authorities that he’s a psychopath. “If it gets me outta those damned pea fields I’ll be whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf…” McMurphy, despite his swagger, is looking for safety too.

But what kind of safety do Kesey’s inmates find? The novel is narrated by the half-white, half-Indian Chief “Broom” Bromden, who has been committed since World War II—nearly two decades. He pretends to be deaf and dumb, but he sees, and tells the reader, everything. He even sees things that are not there. Machines, in particular. Gears grind, huge brass tubes disappear upward in the dark, and the wall clocks speed up and slow down according to Nurse Ratched’s whim. The nurse and her staff are robots, their power extending “in all directions on hairlike wires too small for anybody’s eye but mine.” Sometimes the Chief even pictures the wall sliding up to reveal “a huge room of endless machines stretching clear out of sight, swarming with sweating, shirtless men running up and down catwalks, faces blank and dreamy in firelight thrown from a hundred blast furnaces.” And at night he imagines that the nurse’s minions operate a machine that chokes the room with dense fog.

There’s an unsubtle lesson here about the mechanized nature of modern American society, man turned into a cog in an intricate machine—the “metaphor of repressive America” in bold type. But Kesey makes a subtler point here as well, one that becomes more insistent as the novel progresses. The devices that Chief Bromden perceives in the walls aren’t just any old machines. They’re war machines.

The fog machine, for instance, is connected to Chief Bromden’s earliest memories as a soldier. “Whenever intelligence figured there might be a bombing attack, or if the generals had something secret they wanted to pull,” he says, “they fogged the field.” Elsewhere the fog resembles mustard gas, the kind used on the battlefields in southern Italy where the Chief was stationed. He believes that the psychiatric pills given to the patients are in fact microchips “like the ones I helped the Radar Corps work with in the Army,” and imagines Nurse Ratched firing a shotgun loaded with thorazine and librium.

The Chief is not the only patient who lives in a fog of war. Old Colonel Matterson thinks he’s still in World War I. Billy Bibbit suffered a breakdown in ROTC training when he couldn’t answer the drill officer’s command without stuttering. McMurphy, who received a dishonorable discharge in the Korean War for insubordination, likens group therapy to his time in “a Red Chinese prison camp”; when he is being hauled in for shock therapy, he says sarcastically that he regrets having “but one life to give for his country.” Even Nurse Ratched, we are told in passing, received her training as an Army nurse.

Kesey suggests that war is not only a cause of the patients’ trauma, but a result of it. The mechanization of society leads, inevitably, to a militant society. This is what happens in the ward, after all, where the patients wage an insurgency against Nurse Ratched and her staff. “She’s lost a battle here today,” says the Chief after one early skirmish, “but it’s a minor battle in a big war that she’s been winning and that she’ll go on winning.”

When Kesey wrote the novel, the Korean War was still fresh in recent memory, and World War II not far behind it. Kennedy was ordering the invasion of the Bay of Pigs. The first American special forces were being shipped to Vietnam. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may have served as the nonconformists’ bible during the sixties, but the connection Kesey draws between conformity and the capacity to wage war remains provocative today.

New readers to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will be surprised by how much the novel has to offer. It is a far deeper and more clever work than you might prejudge, to be enjoyed by those who delight in the anti-authoritarian, anti-bureaucratic, and just-who-is-really-insane themes of novels such as Nineteen Eighty Four, Animal Farm and Catch-22, or those that warn of primal chaos when order is lost like Lord of the Flies.

P.S. I would like to thank Mr S.C. Davis for his invaluable contribution toward helping me write this post. I couldn’t have done it without you, G. 🙂

Review: “The Twelve” (The Passage #2) by Justin Cronin

The Twelve

These are confusing times to be a vampire. In the early days, things were clearer: you were a filthy, exsanguinated revenant, doomed to wander graveyards after dark, feeding on the blood of living humans, sleeping in coffins, biting necks and hiding your face from sunlight, mirrors, and God. You were a rat whisperer. You were neither rich nor sexy. And you definitely didn’t sparkle.

But then the Romanians discovered you, and you went from an underground word-of-mouth legend to a supernatural star of page, stage, screen, and, not surprisingly, dildos. The newly industrialized culture was mesmerized by you. No longer a mere monster, you ascended to metaphor.

But transformation is as much a staple of the genre as bats and bloodsucking. Every new vampire story absorbs and reconfigures the tradition, as Justin Cronin aptly demonstrates in The Twelve–the second installment to a vampire trilogy that began in 2010 with Cronin’s blockbuster novel The Passage.

The Twelve feels like a post-apocalyptic cover novel. Justin Cronin lifts liberally from the classics–a little Margaret Atwood, a touch of George Orwell, a lot of Stephen King–in a way that vacillates between homage and cheeky theft. The book is odd,  ponderously structured, flitting through time in decidedly bizarre ways and putting so much pressure on the upcoming final book in this trilogy to make the story tie together elegantly that Cronin has essentially left himself no room to stick the landing.

Yet the book is compulsively readable. And while it struggles in some places where The Passage soared, that seems to be because Cronin took some of the more pervasive criticisms of the earlier book to heart. The Passage was an odd hybrid of character-driven and plot-driven fiction; The Twelve tips more toward the latter, but Cronin has become a much better writer of this kind of story. The plot is always chugging forward, and while the overall contours are mostly predictable (as they were in The Passage), the specific moments and events driving the narrative aren’t.

The Passage began in a world where a military-created virus turned one professor and 12 death-row prisoners into super-vampires, who escaped and plunged North America into chaos and darkness. The book then abruptly lurched forward nearly a century, putting the residents of a tiny human outpost in the California desert in touch with the young girl who was afflicted with the virus without turning into a vampire. The book ended with a semi-cliffhanger, leaving several characters’ fates in question. (For more information, you can read the book or my review of The Passage here.)

The foremost thing about The Passage was just how weird it was.  For me, I believe I was able to get on to its wavelength, and it proved to be an oddly structured delight, one that didn’t give a fuck about leaving the plot behind for several hundred pages for what amounted to a quirky small-town novel awkwardly intersecting with a post-apocalyptic vampire novel. Lots of people I know pushed it away, but The Passage excelled in Cronin’s ability to evoke tenderness and loss, and to sketch in his characters in just a few sentences, then deepen them as the epic tale took root. The Twelve keeps both of these skills largely intact, but it also feels more focused, and that focus draws attention to some of Cronin’s less-worthy qualities, like a tendency to lean too heavily on sentimentality that turns some of the passages of the book into sugary-sweet sludge, or the fact that avid fans of post-apocalyptic literature will have read this all before, probably many times over. Cronin also can’t stop himself from embracing several stereotypes, including a mystical black man and (sigh) an autistic twentysomething who just wants to drive a school bus.

For better or worse, The Passage reads like a novel written by someone who isn’t afraid to try all new things, even if not all of them work. It’s derivative, but also deeply personal, and the two tones work together in spite of themselves. On a technical level, The Twelve is much better written, but also feels slightly more soulless, as if making the whole enterprise several hundred pages shorter left Cronin without rabbit trails to follow off into the plot’s hinterlands.

Yet even with all of this working against him, Cronin remains adroit at approaching his structure and characters from interesting angles. Instead of plunging forward from the cliffhanger, The Twelve initially sends readers back to the era when the virus was first sweeping the continent. The hope is both to establish a new set of characters and to give a better view of the events only glanced at in The Passage.  These 250 pages are mostly terrific (even though they feature that bus driver), and the rest of the novel–which follows more directly from The Passage–does a much better job of tying past to present and making all the plotlines matter. In particular, there’s a beautiful symmetry to the way Cronin leaves behind the world of the newborn “virals” and the way he leaves behind his future world; he uses the past to inform the mysteries he’s teasing in the present. It’s skillful stuff, though it creates an expectation that the third book will now have to wrap up storylines in multiple time periods.

The surviving characters of the original novel all follow believable arcs, and Cronin is great at coming up with new characters who invigorate the story for a few pages and are ripped away from the readers shortly  thereafter. Plus, he’s greatly improved his action sequences, and while the middle of the book occasionally strains from constant viral attacks, the last 200 pages expertly build tension and bring several mysteries to a head.

The Twelve has its flaws, but Cronin’s writing continues to lift it above what could easily become a morass of easy contrivance and eye-rolling vague spirituality. And even if the book had none of that, it would have Lila Kyle and Amy, two characters linked through strange circumstances, who drive the novel’s best portions. The heavily traumatized, deeply maternal Lila pushes the best parts of the mid-apocalyptic sections, while Amy continues her role from The Passage of being simultaneously a symbol and a recognizable young woman finding her way in a terrifying world. For all The Twelve‘s struggles to act as a bridge between its predecessor and whatever’s coming next, whenever the book turns to these two women, it succeeds.

Review: “The Passage” (The Passage #1) by Justin Cronin

The Passage

It is often difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when a writer achieves literary success, but when Stephen King picks up the phone to interrupt your Good Morning America appearance to personally thank you for writing your book, you know you’ve made it.

Cronin is the latest indication that no one, not even an English professor at Rice University, Texas, whose written a couple of small literary novels, is safe from the Count’s bloody fangs. You’d think Cronin’s degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop would repel vampires like a garlic necklace, but who can repel Dracula’s mesmeric gaze, not to mention the $3.75 million advance?

Of course, you’re skeptical. So was I. But by the third chapter, I was way behind on all my work because I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next in the book. It’s a macabre pleasure to see what a really talented novelist can do with these old Transylvanian tropes. In the same way that A Song of Ice and Fire gave us a mature alternative after the Harry Potter series ended, The Passage is for adults who have been bitten but can’t swallow the teeny bopper misogyny of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

As a writer, though, Cronin is more Dr. Frankenstein than Dr. Van Helsing. The Passage, the first volume of a planned trilogy, doesn’t have any interest in pursuing ol’ Count Dracula; it’s all about stitching together the still-beating scraps of classic horror and science fiction, techno-thrillers, and apocalyptic terror. Although a clairvoyant nun plays a crucial role, Cronin has stripped away the lurid religious trappings of the vampire myth and gone with a contemporary biomedical framework. Imagine Michael Crichton crossbreeding Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot in that lab at Jurassic Park, with rich infusions of Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Battlestar Galactica and even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

A pastiche? Please! Cronin is trading derivates so fast and furious he should be regulated by the SEC. (Sorry, inside joke :P)

The story opens a few years in the future, when the war on terror has truly arrived in the USA with frequent attacks on American shopping malls and subway stations by (eye-roll) Iranian jihadists.  A secure government project wants to create a breed of super soldiers by re-engineering a virus found in some nasty Bolivian bats. The last 12 subjects are death-row inmates–murderers and rapists–just the kind of people you’d want to endow with lightning speed, impenetrable exoskeletons, and a rapacious thirst for human blood.

But relax, what could possibly go wrong? These are government experts. They’ve got, like, double locks on the cages and everything. As you might expect, “mistakes were made”. Soon the entire North American continent is overrun by indestructible, blood-sucking fiends. Like the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

The second part of the book picks up about 90 years later with an abrupt jump in locale and tone. From here on out, we follow the fate of a small community of descendants hanging on in a walled compound powered by antique technology. Nuclear plants melt down and explode, vegetation retakes the cities, and the Gulf of Mexico fills with oil from untended wells. Like that could ever happen.

Cronin proves himself just as skillful with this dystopian future as he is with the techno-thriller that opens The Passage. This second section sinks deep into the exotic customs of these beleaguered survivors. We meet a vibrant cast of citizen warriors, who have to ask themselves each day if it’s worth fighting against the dying of the light. (If those wind-powered bulbs go out, the “virals” will swoop in.)

Their best fighter is a stoic redhead named Alicia, who was raised by an old soldier to kill–and could teach Lara Croft a few things about being hot and deadly. I was initially less impressed with Peter, the earnest young man who gradually becomes the center of this epic.  He’s about as sexy as an Axe deodorant model, but there’s something endearing about his modesty and determination, and eventually I saw the wisdom of placing this good-hearted everyman at the centre of all these bizarre crises.

Fortunately, Cronin has a wry sense of humour that runs from macabre to silly. A passing reference to Jenna Bush Hager as the governor of Texas may be the scariest thing in these pages. Soldier’s watching an old reel of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in a post-apocalyptic vampire wasteland is a particularly nice touch. And in the final pages of the novel, one of my favourite characters “lapsed into a kind of twilight“, but not the Stephenie Meyers kind.

Yes, once in a while, Cronin can’t resist sucking on a few supple cliches. A traumatised survivor obviously heading toward something terrible says, “I wonder if we’re heading towards something terrible”. There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold, a little child holds the key to humanity’s salvation, and some exhilarating chapters have needless cliffhangers grafted onto the last line, e.g., “Something was about to happen.” You don’t say.

But once the vampires start leaping from the treetops, you’re not going to notice those little flaws. You’ll be running too fast.  Part of what makes these light-sensitive monsters so terrifying is that Cronin never lets us see them much or for long.  For hundreds of pages, we remain like the harried survivors, peering into the darkness for those glowing orange eyes, the last thing we’ll see before we experience the new sensation of being ripped from crotch to neck. It’ll be interesting to see if Ridley Scott, having reportedly paid $1.75 million for the movie rights before the book was even finished, can make a good movie out of it. But even if he can’t, late in the novel there’s a climactic gladiator scene with Wild West overtones that will blow the top of your head off.

About halfway through the loooong centre of The Passage, I was whining that Cronin should have cut out a few hundred pages, but by the end, the only thing I wanted was to get my sweaty hands on the next two volumes. Till then, I’ll be keeping the lights on.

 You can read my review of the next book in the Passage trilogy, The Twelve, here.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

So as I went over my notes on when I was reading this book, I think they can be summarized as “Reasons Why I Hate This Book”. However, since the book has been nominated for the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke Award and won the Nebula Award for Best Science-Fiction Novel, I feel like I have to justify why it wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, the date is given by the title and our solar system is a very different place.  Humans have terraformed and colonised every inhabitable planet and moon. Asteroids have been repurposed as long-haul shuttles, self-contained habitats that people live on for years or months till they reach their destination. Mercury supports a city called Terminator, which is a shielded habitat that travels around the planet on rails, pushed forward by the thermal expansion of metal at sunrise.

The protagonist is Swan Er Hong, a native of Terminator, and grand-daughter of Alex, one of the most powerful women in the solar system. Swan is impulsive, erratic and emotionally intense. Her past is full of outrageous risks and extreme creativity: having songbirds neurons implanted into her brain, eating extra-terrestrial bacteria, designing habitats in the asteroid belt and creating art on the plains of Mercury. The story opens with Swan mourning Alex’s death. An inspector from the asteroids and a diplomat from Titan (Fitz Wahram) enter her life, and Swan finds out that Alex’s death may not be due to natural causes. And then Mercury is attacked, making the situation really complicated.

Now, while all of this may sound really promising, why I thought 2312 was nothing more than an ambitious failure was its lack of a coherent storyline. Robinson has imagined a truly amazing world, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The characters don’t seem to have any concept of fiscal or practical limitation. They head across the solar system on a moment’s notice, take vacations on random asteroids and seem to have a free hand in messing with the Earth’s already too-fucked environment, with next to no repercussions.

In structure, 2312 is supposed to be a murder mystery. Swan and Wahram witnessed the attack on Terminator, survived it and then investigate it, which in turn leads them to the pre-existing fault lines their society. The problems with this are that the society hasn’t been described coherently enough for the reader to grasp the potential fault lines and Robinson has no idea about how to construct a mystery plot. Swan and Wahram’s approach is very disjointed, there is no sense of gathering clues and very little sense of drama. All of the plot revelations are dropped in Swan’s lap by another character at a convenient moment. The characters essentially do no meaningful investigation and show no investment in the outcome of the plot. When the climax comes, it is very weirdly forgettable.

There are also large sections of the book that appear to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and that’s where the unfortunate interval on Earth comes in. Robinson takes advantage of the scenes on Earth to do a bit of alienation and shows how foreign and strange and stifling Earth feels to someone who grew up outside of its atmosphere. Parts of this work, but he puts the plot on hold to do it. And parts of it do not work at all. The most glaring example is Swan and Wahram’s bizarre bit of attempted charity in Africa, which comes across as stunningly high-handed and arrogant. This could be in character, particularly for Swan (who is not long on empathy), but, if so, the book doesn’t signal to the reader that it should be read that way. Instead, there are some side (or snide) comments that seem to indicate Robinson knows nothing about the economic arc of Africa from the past twenty years. And when their absurd, botched, condescending charity plan fails for all the obvious reasons, the characters, and apparently the novel, throw up their hands and write Earth off as a stagnant lost cause that can’t accept the imposition of a good idea and go back to the plot, never apparently caring about Earth again.

Almost as frustrating is the way that these interludes are tied back into the story, which is usually through Swan getting ridiculously lucky on her random encounter rolls. It felt like whenever Robinson needed to make progress in the plot, Swan would just accidentally run into exactly the right person or situation to bring up the next plot point or to have some investigation make sense. (Not that Swan usually figured this out. Normally, the inspector explains it to her.) The author’s finger was planted so firmly on the scales that it destroyed my suspension of disbelief and made a mockery of the idea that the characters were actually investigating anything.

2312 is built around a skeleton of a plot, but the lack of engagement with it, the lack of tension and emotion, the way the next developments are generally narrated to the protagonists and the reader, and the repeated use of random encounters to steer it left me without much reason to care. Robinson tries a few twists, but since the story never felt committed to its plot anyway, those twists feel less like planned complications and more like another random veer in the road. It didn’t help that the final outcome was more prosaic and forgettable than the book had been implying it would be.

At the end, I would like to say that 2312 is not all that bad. The protagonists are memorable, and Robinson was brilliant at world-building and at writing the set pieces. However, the book lacked a plot and the characters needed a more coherent and complete cultural backdrop. Without these, the book just felt like reading about gorgeous moments separated by a whole lot of boring, and gave the overall impression of a construction tour rather than a story. There are bits of it I loved (especially the extended characterisation of Swam and Wahram in the tunnels of Mercury) but the book as a whole is a mess, and I can’t recommend wading through it for the good parts.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Okay. So I made a mistake. This should NOT have been my first Murakami. My roommate is happy saying “I told you so”. But since that’s done, I will now try to make sense of the fuck-all (IMHO) that was Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I think it’s only appropriate I am writing this listening to Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta (the music that was instrumental in transporting our protagonists to this alternate world).

 Cover

1Q84 is a surreal romance, spread over 3 books and 1300- (very) odd pages, with the first two books being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel. Set in Tokyo over 8 months in 1984, it alternates between the perspectives of its two lead characters: Aomame (Japanese for “green peas”), a female gym instructor who avenges victims of domestic violence; and Tengo, a burly maths tutor who ghost-writes a novella about a girl who is visited by the weird gnome-like creatures called the Little People. When they were ten, at school in Ichikawa, Tengo and Aomame once held hands. In that fleeting touch, they each felt urgently drawn to the other. In one sense, 1Q84 simply sets up the conditions for a second encounter. The question is “Will they ever meet again?”

In its early chapters, 1Q84 is like a cross between Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (review coming soon). Aomame, stuck in a traffic jam, is about to kill a wife-beating oil broker with an ice pick. Driven by the memory of her childhood friend, who committed suicide after marrying a similar asshole, she carries out such murders on the instructions of a wealthy dowager who runs a women’s shelter. Tengo does odd jobs for this cantankerous editor called Komatsu, who wants him to rewrite an addictive but inelegant novella titled Air Chrysalis submitted for a new fiction prize. The real author, a beautiful and dyslexic 17-year old girl called Fuka-Eri, has been raised as the daughter of a cult leader on a rural commune. There, hippie communism and the cultivation of organic vegetables have degenerated into the fabrication of a full-blown charismatic creed: god-like leader, mind-games, thuggish security, child abuse, sinister incinerator – the works. Fuka-Eri has escaped into the care of Professor Ebisuno, a disenchanted former associate of “Leader”. Now her story, which is both autobiography and science fiction, wins the prize and plunges Tengo into danger.

Two Moons

After this, the story becomes even weirder. When miniskirt hoisted, Aomame had shimmied from the expressway and down into an emergency stairwell on her way to the kill, she had entered a different reality. She first notices it because the cops have swapped their old-fashioned revolvers she thought they carried to bulky semi-automatics. Now, two moons hang in the sky: the normal, original one, and a smaller, lopsided, greenish twin. (At which point, Aomame proceeds to obsess about her own asymmetrical breasts. Coincidence?). In this world, the Little People operate in fact as well as fiction. Gradually, Tengo and Aomame’s tales begin to converge. She is tasked to assassinate the Leader of Sakigake (the cult from which Fuka-Eri ran away) because he is a child-rapist. Meanwhile, enforcers for Sakigake target Tengo as the leak who exposed their secrets through Fuka-Eri’s novella. By the end of the second volume, after a beautifully written assassination scene, Aomame spots Tengo in a suburban playground, gazing wistfully at the twin moons. The third volume, though equally well-written, seems more like an afterthought or an anti-climax. Here we meet Ushikawa, the appallingly ugly outcast who listens to Sibelius Violin Concertos while soaking in the bathtub. People cringe at his approach. Even his children avoid him. An entertainingly satanic figure, he sees it all; nothing escapes him, especially his own repulsiveness. He serves as the novel’s diabolical antagonist, the enemy of love between Tengo and Aomame, and he is quite wonderful to contemplate, up to and including the unforgettable scene in which he meets his nemesis, the dowager’s murderous gay bodyguard.

One of the biggest problems with the book is that too many recaps just slow the motion of the story. Tonally, the entire book feels like it is cluttered with too many details, almost as if Murakami had hoped this oversaturation would remind readers that his story is functioning in an alternate reality. For example, when Aomame gets a very important phone call towards the end of the book, I don’t need to know that she was “seated on a yoga mat, legs wide apart, stretching her iliopsoas muscles, which is actually a much more strenuous exercise than it looked”.

Another problem I had was Murakami attempting to overlay all his threads and themes into one single system. There are pockets of the novel that function so beautifully on their own (for instance, the story of Tengo’s father) that they begin to feel cheapened when Murakami tries to explicitly connect them to other, more theoretical points in the novel. It’s like instead of making thematic discoveries of my own, I have to interpret the connections only in the way he made them.

As for the title, it alludes to George Orwell’s 1984 (my review here) and plays with words (the English ‘Q’ and Japanese ‘9’ are homophones), and the Little People represent a modernized Big Brother. But where Orwell gave us a bracing parable about the horrors of totalitarianism, 1Q84’s ethos was not something I could comprehend. There’s much talk about ‘evil’ in the book, but it boils down to the belief that iniquity is either in the eye of the beholder (moral relativism) or a stabilising force in society (sales pitch for the dark side). I guess it makes sense that in the entire book there is never any sense of real wrongdoing or real pain. In 1984, the story gives you new ideas about power, injustice and cruelty, which are just elements used to service the story in 1Q84. As a consequence, in the book, no matter how appalling an act may be, its moral status remains ambiguous, even irrelevant.

The last thing I am is a moral absolutist, but I was still troubled by Murakami’s willingness to use the rape of children as a mere metaphor and by the general ethical impassivity which pervaded the entire book. While I appreciated the frank and idiosyncratic way his characters experienced sex or dealt with violence, I felt there was something cartoonish and even leering about much of it. For example, when the ostensibly straight Aomame mourns both a victim of domestic violence and a friend strangled by a stranger during sex, she mainly seems to grieve for “their lovely breasts—breasts that had vanished without a trace”. I don’t know if it’s offensive, unrealistic or just insane but then that can be said of the entire book.

For me, 1Q84 was psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavoury, full of lacunas and loose ends, stuffed with unnecessary details but not a coherent story. A large part of me wanted to ask Murakami what he was smoking when he wrote this, but a smaller part acknowledges it as a more than decent book. In the end, Tengo puts it best. “You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to,” he acknowledges. And yet, “after you work your way through the whole thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression—it gets to you”.

1984

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Those are the three tenets of George Orwell’s uber-dystopian world of Oceania, one of three super-states in the future where there is perpetual war, which is a mash-up of the UK, the Americas and Australia. 1984 is Orwell’s disturbing image of a post-World War II scenario where he thought democratic values wouldn’t survive. Instead, we have the Party led by this man called Big Brother (if you thought the show was annoying, wait till you get a load of this) and there are “telescreens”, which are just TVs spouting government propaganda and spying on your actions 24/7. The world is divided into Party members (Inner and Outer) and the “proles”, which, if any of you have ever heard of Marx, is pretty self-explanatory [Harry Potter fans, think Deathly Hallows and Magic is Might]. Except for the fact that these uneducated proles are 85% of the population and they are effectively controlled by the Party by no concrete regulations since there are no laws in this world. The only wrong you can do is “Thoughtcrime” (holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question the Party), which can only be committed by Party members. If caught, all traces of you ever having existed will be destroyed and you will be vaporized or turned into an “unperson”. Frightening yet cool.

Our hero, for lack of a better word, is Winston Smith, a morose, paranoid, frail 39-year old who is an editor in the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth), where he falsifies historical records to keep up with the ever-changing party line and deleting the existence of people who have been vaporized, secretly hoping for an invitation to the Brotherhood, the hush-hush anti-government organisation led by Emmanuel Goldstein. Just like Joseph Stalin used to airbrush his “fallen comrades” from photographs and remove their names from books and newspapers. Constantly being forced to rewrite it, Winston is fascinated by the past and makes clumsy attempts to know what truly happened, either by talking to really old drunks in prole bars or going to antique shops and buying journals and coral paperweights. Total badass.

He falls in love with Julia, a young, hot member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. Yes, these existed, because in this world one of the Party’s aims is to take the joy out of sex. Children are born through “artsem” and as soon as they grow up they join this terrible organisation called the Spies where they get to listen in on doors and report suspicious activities of adults they don’t like. Try making your kid eat veggies now, Mom. Anyway, Winston and Julia have the oddest flirtation ever. He dreams of raping and killing her and she falls passionately in love with him by stalking him. Total fairy tale romance. They have sex in hidden meadows and bombed churches before, finally, getting a room. And real bread and jam. And coffee with real sugar. And Winston gets invited to join the Brotherhood with his own copy of the manifesto and all.

Wait a minute. I thought they were living in a super-surveillance state which is perpetually at war. Yes, they still are. Except Winston’s apparently been having the biggest lucky streak of his life and never thinks to question it. Then he gets caught. Shocker. Which is when the real fun begins in the Ministry of Love (aka Miniluv, LOL). Starvation. Beatings. Torture. Betrayal. And, RATS.

 

The book is rife with symbolism from wartime Britain and Russia-bashing. For instance, Oceania changing allies when it suited them (Russia and Nazi Germany); Goldstein being a facsimile of Leon Trotsky, animal transformations and all and Big Brother as Stalin. The Thought Police could be the NKVD. Even the lovely contractions are derived from Mother Russia (Dialectical Materialism=DiaMat). The slogan “Our, new happy life” a copy of “Life has become better”. Personally, I think of NaMo’s “Achhe din aa gaye”

Jokes aside, I think 1984 is one of the most well-written and chilling books I have ever read. Orwell, a democratic socialist at heart, has brilliantly demonstrated the perils of authoritarianism. Written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it shows a chilling view of the future as a place where the language has been pared to so great an extent that it only serves the purpose of officialdom and people have been reduced to being tools of the Party. The “proles” are nothing more than the silent masses subjugated to the elite. Your thoughts, your home, your family, your leisure time are all subject to constant surveillance and you like it. It shows how the freedoms we take for granted and the past we derive them from are so fragile and can be snatched away so easily by those in power.

I would recommend this book to everyone who loves a good read. It is a searing political and social commentary as well as a thriller. Read for the masterful way Orwell has used the English language. Read because it is as relevant today as it was 65 years ago. (I’m talking about you, NSA) The book may be a bit dry but Winston humanizes the more abstract themes in a relatable manner. It is a very worthwhile read with rich and layered meanings. It even has cool dialogues like “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” and “Until they become conscious they will never rebel and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious”.

So if you’ve somehow managed to avoid this book in your school years, do yourself a favour and read it today. If you’ve read it and hated it, give it another try. Don’t believe me? Read Isaac Asimov’s review of 1984 at the New Yorker here