In honor of the paperback release of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, here’s a review I wrote up last summer but never published.

Unless you’re already living in a bunker, you’ve probably heard that The Passage, the vampire apocalypse tale by Justin Cronin, is going to be one of this summer’s blockbuster novels, with reports of a multi-million dollar advance, Ridley Scott directing the movie, and a dust jacket recommendation from Stephen King.  There’s even a viral marketing site at that purports to show evidence of a rampaging virus, and gruesome attacks by strange, half-seen creatures.

The most common comparison for The Passage is to Stephen King’s The Stand, and there are a number of shared elements (enough that I wondered if they were intentional homages), but it turns out the stories are not as similar as I had hoped, they’re really not even close.

The promo site makes it sound like The Passage will focus on the outbreak itself, and the challenges faced as the virus, and the creatures it creates, spread across the country.  With quotes like “California Declares Itslef a Sovereign Nation – Vows to Defend Itself”, I was hoping for an epic story of the collapse of society as governments fall, and survivors struggle to not just stay alive, but also human.

It heads in that direction for about 250 pages, but then the story takes a major shift, and skips forward 90 years.  The rest of the book wasn’t anything like what I was expecting, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The setting becomes First Colony, a small town in California fortified at the time of the outbreak with 20 meter walls topped with flood lights, meant to serve as a secure enclave for a group of survivors to wait out the crisis.  Nearly a century later, their descendants are still waiting for the “builders” to return, and living in fear of the day the lights will go out.

Even before the Colony goes dark, there’s still plenty of danger for the residents to face, particularly as a group of them embarks on a good old fashioned post-apocalyptic road trip in search of the origin of a strange radio signal.  Their journey in patched together vehicles takes them across several states, through ruined cities, toward what they hope will be answers about the source of the virals, and how to defeat them.

The Passage is not a perfect book by any means; there’s no way it should have been on Time magazine’s recent list of top 10 post-apocalyptic novels of all time, but it is definitely very good.  I had issues with some supernatural aspects (some of the aforementioned similarities to The Stand), but I guess once you let vampires in to your story, anything goes.

From a technical perspective, the writing is very good, and the characters are well fleshed-out and consistent. Structurally, it does feel very much like a Stephen King novel, and Cronin sprinkles in a few of the kinds of references that make true post-apocalyptic fans salivate.  For example, it’s not particularly original, but telling part of the story in the form of historical records presented at a global conference discussing the outbreak 1000 years in the future is pretty cool.

The good name of vampires as supernatural entities to be feared has been sullied in recent years, but The Passage, and its two scheduled sequels, should serve to turn back that tide a bit. I can give this book a fairly wholehearted recommendation, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to where Cronin goes with the rest of the trilogy.