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: “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 Virgin of the Wind Rose” by Glen Craney

Virgin of the Wind Rose

While investigating the murder of her fiance in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam. Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon’s Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged. The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal’s Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.

Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days.

I liked Craney’s style of writing for the most part. However, I felt he had a tendency to over-dramatize the negative, especially by using unnecessary adjectives. In addition, I had a lot of issues with his portrayal of Jaq. In the beginning, she is portrayed as this pious virgin with a “Caribbean figure” and “luscious sable hair with wild Medusa curls.” If that isn’t sexist enough, she is engaged to marry a missionary who was “impressed enough with her potential for obedience” and voluntarily enrols in a Christian cult a.k.a. “rehab” just because her father-figure says so. I confess, what I know of evangelical Christians and “true believers” of any kind is heavily biased. But, if you choose to pit Muslims and Christians against each other in your story, why is the Christian made to sound rational in his piety and the Muslim a deranged lunatic, when it is understood that their faiths have largely similar origins?

In terms of historical content, it is obvious that Craney spent a great deal of time and effort researching the different events and characters that pop up in the course of the story. However, the descriptions often become long expositions and include a lot of obscure details, making them a difficult read, even though the reader knows they exist to provide context. Even the characters often rely on an archaic vocabulary to make their point, using words like ‘carnaptious’, ‘druthers’ and ‘troglodyte’, making the entire setting seem anachronistic.

Despite being based so firmly in real history, Craney never makes you forget the story’s a work of fiction with his conspiracy theories that border on the implausible. They don’t take anything away from the novel per se, and end up paving a truly epic path for the protagonists to follow. We get treated to secrets guarded by Prince Henry and the Order of the Christ, Queen Isabella’s hunt for them, the Spanish Inquisition’s lesser-known purposes, cryptographic tablets with orders passed on them, End-Time cults… all in all, things definitely worth suspending one’s disbelief for.

The balanced narration ensures that the mystery is exposed at the right pace, switching between the present and the past at the right times, with Craney revealing just enough to pique our curiosity while keeping the really jaw-dropping revelations until the climax. The way the whole thing evolves is rather reminiscent of Dan Brown’s style (or Brad Thor, as some prefer to compare), focused on keeping the mystery alive and prominent until the end, and perhaps even after that.

Overall, The Virgin of the Wind Rose is an enthralling page-turner that will keep you glued to the couch despite its flaws. It’s a largely logical and well-developed mystery and anyone who enjoys reading about globe-trotting treasure hunts will certainly love this book.

P.S. I was provided a copy by the author. The views expressed are honest and personal.

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.