The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin


I’m sitting here at my desk, and instead of working on moving my WIPs to the “Ready for Humiliation” folder, I’m staring at my bookshelf. I’m gazing at the spines of Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, and I’m thinking about reading them again.

I recently finished the third book, The City of Mirrors, and it’s one of few trilogies that I can legitimately, honestly say I loved. It has everything (well, many things) I look for in fiction: a fantastical, alluring world; rich mythology; risky storytelling; deep characters; solid writing that is at times literary; complexity in just about everything. In a word: depth.

I loved it, but I’m not thinking about reading it again only because of how I felt about it. You see, The Passage is one of the only trilogies or series I bought into immediately. I can’t recall any others that I picked up before they were all completely written. And Justin Cronin isn’t cranking out a new novel every quarter. He’s putting three or four years of his life into a book, and that’s a lot of time for a reader between books. But it’s part of the reason they are so good.

I’m increasingly of the mind that good fiction cannot be rushed out the door, that authors need to live in their worlds and with their characters to truly grant them the substance they need to create meaning and allow readers to leave and take with them whatever it is they find there in those pages.

Granted, I know plenty of authors who put out really good work annually and semi-annually. Those people are freaks.

But back to The Passage. If you’re not familiar with it (and are unwilling to Google it), it’s an epic story about everything that happens up to an apocalypse (featuring vampires that actually are scary and monstrous), after the fall, and through humanity’s return. That’s not a spoiler. Cronin tells us in the first book that we make it, which I questioned at first, but realized later it was brilliant. In doing so, he removes the shackles of the common apocalyptic trope of “will humanity make it?”, which can often be burdensome on a narrative, and instead can focus on other things, such as will our beloved characters make it? Of course, that theme isn’t absent; his characters, after all, have no idea what’s going to happen.

The story of The Passage takes place over a thousand years. It is an epic dark fantasy, but what makes it somewhat unique is it never loses sight of what makes a story important: its characters. Rather, most epic stories that take place over many generations introduce characters to you and then boot them out of the way. The Passage does some nimble jumping across the centuries, so that most primary character arcs do, indeed, follow the entire trilogy.

Moreover, one of the trilogy’s greatest strengths, every character has a full, satisfying storyline. Some might snidely refer to it as nothing more than “fan service,” but I would disagree. The Passage balances the line between satisfying and meaningful. Rather, characters carry on not because Cronin is afraid to kill them off, or they may perish in a ceremonious way not because they deserve it, but because there is a meaning to it all, and to readers who are invested in the story and characters, the treatment is satisfying and complete.

“Complete” is an appropriate word to describe The Passage. “Perfect” is loaded and subject to opinion. Instead, the Passage is complete in every aspect; no loose ends. There’s a double-edged sword, though. Readers who aren’t invested, who aren’t all in as I was, might find the storytelling burdensome, exhaustive, or a slog. This would be unfortunate, and due to the nature of The Passage, it might be difficult for readers to diagnose whether they feel mired in an endless epic they have no feelings for or if they’re just not sold on it yet.

My experience was conflicted. In all honesty, I wasn’t sold until about page 100 of The City of Mirrors. I had enjoyed it until then, but I feel book three is the strongest of the trilogy because it really pays off all of the hardships in the trilogy. In that way, The Passage may be an all-or-nothing series: either you finish it, or don’t even bother. And considering the books average about 800 pages, it is a commitment that is hard to make, especially when there’s so much great stuff out there.

I really can’t recommend The City of Mirrors enough. I will treasure this book. Unfortunately, it means having to read the first two, which again, are really good in their own right but can be burdensome. The trilogy has to be read as a whole. It would be a shame to hear someone read the book one, thought it was pretty good, but then moved on to other things, because the trilogy is, frankly, amazing on the whole.

If you like apocalyptic fiction, if you’re thirsting (heh) to read about vampires that kick ass, and if you enjoy or even can tolerate a bit of literary fiction with your genre fiction, please consider reading The Passage, The Twelve, and The City of Mirrors. And when you’re done, drop me a line so we can talk about it.

Better yet, let me know when you start it. I may read it again with you.

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