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?

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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: “The Antelope Wife” by Louise Erdrich

Family stories repeat themselves in patterns in waves, generation to generation, across blood and time.

In 1998, Louise Erdrich published The Antelope Wife to high praise from readers and from critical reviewers.  But in 2009, Erdrich reread the novel and started to think about the characters. The result was a complete reworking of the book, published in 2012. I was very intrigued by the idea that an author would return to a well-received work and drastically change it. In an interview published in the P.S. section of the Harper Collins edition, Erdrich says that only “the beginning is the same, and then the book changes utterly“. I haven’t read the original, but I’m going to have to find a copy so I can make a comparison.

As the revised version of The Antelope Wife opens, a cavalry soldier pursues a dog with a Ojibwa baby strapped to its back. For days, he follows them through “the vast carcass of the world west of the Otter Tail River” until finally the dog allows him to approach and handle the child–a girl, not yet weaned, who latches onto his nipples until, miraculously, they begin to lactate. In another kind of novel, this might be a metaphor. But this is the fictional world of Louise Erdrich, where myth is woven deeply into the fabric of everyday life. A famous cake tastes of grief, joy, and the secret ingredient: fear. The tie that binds the antelope wife to her husband is, literally, the strip of sweetheart calico he used to yoke her hand to his. Legendary characters sew beads into colorful patterns, and the patterns become the design of the novel itself.

The Antelope Wife centers on the Roys and the Shawanos, two closely related Ojibwa (or Chippewa) families living in modern-day Gakahbekong, or Minneapolis. Urban Native Americans of mixed blood, they are “scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings,” and Erdrich follows them through two failed marriages, a “kamikaze” wedding, and several tragic deaths. But the plot also loops and circles back, drawing in a 100-year old murder, a burned Ojibwa village, a lost baby, and several generations of twins.

Though the saga is animated by obsessive love, mysterious disappearances, mythic legends and personal frailties, Erdrich also works in a comic vein. There’s a dog who tells dirty jokes and a naked wife whose birthday surprise has an audience. Throughout, Erdrich emphasizes the paradoxes of everyday life: braided grandmas who follow traditional ways and speak the old language also wear eyeliner and sneakers. In each generation, men and women are bewitched by love, lust, and longing; they are slaves to drink, to carefully guarded secrets or to the mesmerizing power of hope.

The book is full of familiar themes–love, family, history, and the complex ways these forces both bind and separate generations, stitching them into patterns as complex as beadwork. At least initially, this swirl of characters, narratives, timelines, and connections can take a little getting used to (Erdrich now draws family trees in the beginning); the plot sometimes bogs down with an overload of emotional complications, the novel ultimately celebrates the courage of following one’s ordained path in the universe and meeting the challenges of fate. In the end, Erdrich’s lovely, lyrical language prevails, and I felt like I had succumbed to the book’s own dreamlike logic.

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.