Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Passage A Riveting Dystopian Epic

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Dystopian fiction, as I told my husband the other day, should only be read by optimists. Cynics are depressed enough as it is. After all, reading end-of-the-world novels is enough to make even me - the possessor of an annoyingly, eternally sunny outlook - a little worried. Doomsayers rarely sway me, but books about apocalyptical destruction always give me pause. I ask myself: How long could I, or anyone for that matter, survive in a world rocked by global disaster? Could people made soft and compliant by microwave ovens, automatic dishwashers, and the like figure out a way to eke out a life if doing so suddenly became a whole lot less convenient? Would I be one of the first to lay down and accept my dismal fate or would I be one of the strong, fighting to reclaim life as I once knew it? You've probably guessed by now that I'm a glass-half-full kind of girl and I'm really not too concerned about zombies decimating the human race or meteors destroying the Earth, but every dystopian book I read makes me think. And fret. Just a little.

My latest foray into the genre is not so much a dystopian story as it is a dystopian epic. At nearly 800 pages long, The Passage by Justin Cronin is the first book in a planned trilogy. It starts like many disaster tales do - with a top secret government/military experiment that's quickly going awry. Although FBI agent Brad Wolgast doesn't know every detail of Project NOAH, he knows enough not to ask questions. Rounding up Death Row inmates for medical research isn't the funnest job in the world, but the ethics don't bother him too much. If a serial killer can help find a cure for cancer, why not let him have a chance to redeem himself? It's only when Wolgast receives his latest assignment that he feels a bit of unease: the FBI wants him to bring in 6-year-old Amy Bellafonte. Delivering a murderer to a secret government facility is one thing, taking a child is quite another. Despite his misgivings, Wolgast does as he's told. It doesn't take the agent long to realize Amy's no ordinary kid. Whatever his superiors want from her, it can't be good. And he won't let them take her.

Ninety some years later, Project NOAH's turned into a national, if not global, disaster. Peter Jaxon's never heard of the government experiment, but the 21-year-old's intimately familiar with its outcome. In a land once known as California, Peter lives in a walled fortress with a handful of others. Occasionally, someone wanders into the settlement, but no one's come in 30 years. Maybe there are other humans out there, maybe not. Maybe they really are the only people left in the world. They're not the only creatures, though, not by a long shot. Hundreds, possibly thousands or millions, of virals stumble across the landscape. Zombies, vampires, jumps, smokes - whatever you call them, it's best to stay out of their way. Barring that, the only thing you can do is pray you get off a clean shot - straight to the sternum - before they rip you apart. That is, if you still believe in God, which Peter definitely does not.

It's on a foraging mission that Peter encounters a mysterious young girl, a child who doesn't seem to be wholly human or viral, but some incomprehensible combination. It's clear from the start that she's important, but how? As Peter studies the girl, he learns things that blow his mind, secrets about the long-ago government, a project called NOAH, and a special little girl named Amy. Her powers, both dark and dangerous, are already causing problems in the peaceful settlement - still, Peter knows he has to take a chance on her. It may be the only one left for him, his friends, and whatever's left of the human race.

Although the story isn't nearly as original as I hoped it would be, The Passage still manages to be completely riveting. With a furiously-paced plot, complex characters, a little bit of romance, and plenty of good, old-fashioned dystopian carnage, the book thrills on every level. The (kinda sorta) cliffhanger ending is a teensy disappointing (especially after zipping through 800 pages to find out what happens), but it just means there's more to come from Cronin. I, for one, can't wait.

(Readalikes: The Enemy by Charlie Higson and The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan; Cronin's writing and the book's structure are reminiscent of a Stephen King epic)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence/gore, and some sexual content

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

1 comment:

  1. WOW! It sounds a lot like Terry Brook's Genesis of Shannara series. BUT I still love me some dystopian. Thanks for letting me know about this book. Great review

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