The Passage by Justin Cronin
I’d heard pretty decent things about The Passage. It’s had positive mentions from folks online, and it even had one of those handwritten cards underneath it at Waterstone’s (sorry, “Waterstones”) that said it was recommended by a member of staff. Those are usually both good signs.
To save you time, I’ll just sum up this review now: I will not be recommending it.
Despite doing more research than normal on this one (so I could be sure that it wasn’t another young adult novel aimed at girls), I didn’t really check details of the plot (as I didn’t want to spoil it). I gleaned a little bit: some researchers find a virus that might possibly grant eternal life, super strength, super speed and so on. So the US military, being the US military, decides to try to weaponise the virus to create super soldiers. Obviously it goes wrong, ends up killing the vast majority of people in the USA, and the book deals with the plight of the survivors. That sounds like quite an interesting plot.
Alas, I missed out one detail, which is that the virus didn’t just kill people. It turned a few people into vampires (or “virals”), who naturally go off and kill loads of people, turn a bunch of others into vampires, and that’s the ‘plight’ that the survivors have to deal with. Yes, it turns out The Passage is a vampire apocalypse story, the least interesting of all apocalypse stories (see The Strain Trilogy).
I almost quit on The Passage about 8 pages in, at the first, joking mention of vampires. I really should have. It’s not really that it’s bad, it’s just not worth reading.
One of the problems is that The Passage is an oddly structured book. The opening act introduces a decent range of characters in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the outbreak, all somehow related to the military research: Wolgast, an FBI agent collecting death row prisoners to become test subjects; Carter, a death row prisoner targeted as a test subject; Amy, a 6-year old girl, abandoned at a convent by her mum; and Lacey, a nun at the convent. All are vaguely interesting and seemingly have a decent amount of depth to their backstories. There’s a bunch of supporting characters as well, but towards the end of the first act Wolgast is established as the main character, the central narrative is about him looking after Amy through the outbreak, and the other characters all seem to have roles to play in supporting him and fighting the outbreak.
And then at the end of the first act, just as these characters are getting interesting, and the outbreak is gaining momentum, the narrative jumps forward 90 years to forget about those characters and bring in a bunch of new ones.
The second act then becomes basically another first act, introducing the characters, the setting and so on. The main character then becomes Peter Jaxon, a watchmen in what might be the last remaining human colony. The colony is kept safe by watchmen like Peter, and (more usefully) a massive array of lights around the walls. Peter’s personal story is about stepping out of the shadow of his (dead) brother Theo. And the overall narrative becomes an almost-standard quest through hostile territory by Peter and a number of (quite decent) supporting characters to attempt to secure the future of the colony (and hopefully mankind as a whole).
I don’t think have a problem with the structure of the plot in and of itself. The Player of Games had a similar structure of changing up the character list after the opening act, and that worked well (and was a hugely enjoyable book). And there are callbacks (some pretty significant) from the second and third acts that, to some extent, justify the inclusion of the opening act and the 90-year gap in the narrative. Not enough, or of high enough quality that the second and third acts couldn’t stand up without the opening act, but enough that I can see the idea behind it. I think my problem is more just the simple length of it, and how that combines with the structure.
The Passage is over 900 pages long. I knew this going in, so I’ve only got myself to blame. That means the opening act clocks in at about 300 pages, or the length that a decent, snappy novel could be. By the time the actual main plot is fully established and underway, we’re 600 pages in. I genuinely think that 600 pages is about the maximum a book should be without a really, really good reason otherwise. That’s plenty of time to develop complex characters and tell a complex, twisting story. Most books beyond that length feel like they just have so much filler. There are whole swathes of The Passage that could be cut without any significant detriment to the story or characters (and with significant benefits to the pacing).
There are some standout sequences, particularly a chase scene in an abandoned Las Vegas, and the night of the actual outbreak. The use of different mediums at certain points is quite good as well. The discovery and research of the virus is told through a series of emails. The spread of the outbreak is told through a series of newspaper reports. The move to and establishment of the colony is told through a character’s diary. Those all work well (enough), to the extent that I wish this sort of thing had been used further. Although that being said, later in the book a character’s diary entries are used to skim over the uneventful parts of the journey, and these pages seem to mainly consist of finding ways to say “fuck all happened today”, for far too many pages.
In fact, pretty much all of my problems with The Passage come down to its length. The length robs the story of any momentum, and basically slows what character development there is to a crawl. The last few pages are actually fairly decent, although it’s a little heavy on the deus ex machine. On the other hand, at least during the finale it felt like there was something going on.
And that’s really the problem with The Passage. So much of it is just nothing. It’s just words, on a page, serving no real purpose to develop characters or the story. Usually, after reading a book where my main criticism is “it’s too long”, I can usually think that it would have been a good book at 500 pages (hello George R. R. Martin). But with The Passage, I don’t even think that’s true. If you boil down the plot and the characters to only the things that are worth a damn, there’s maybe, maybe a passable 300 page book in there somewhere. Maybe. I’m not even convinced of that though.
Is it wrong to criticise a book for being too long? I don’t think so. Other media, such as albums and films have fairly prescribed lengths (45-75 minutes; 1.5-2.5 hours). It’s common for an album to be criticised for having lots of filler, or a film to be criticised for being boring, and to me, both of those are no different than criticising a book for being too long: not enough happened during the running time to justify the running time. There’s a quote from some comedian (I think Dylan Moran, possibly in Black Books) along the lines of “it was terrible, but it was short, so it was ok”. The Passage was ok, but it was long, so it was terrible. There are some very good, very long books (Game of Thrones, Shantaram to name two), so I’m dismissing all long books out of hand, but the good ones that justify their length are fairly rare.
In the end, I have three things that sum up my thoughts on The Passage:
- I spent 10 hours on a bus to and from London, with nothing to do but read The Passage, and I probably spent three hours total reading it, because I just couldn’t be bothered with it.
- Generally, I’m a sucker who will read a sequel even when I wasn’t wild about the original. The Passage has a sequel (called The Twelve), it’s another 900-page opus, and I have absolutely no plans on reading it.
- I’m not even dismissing The Twelve it out of hand because it’s too long (although I am exactly the kind of hypocrite who would do that). Even if it was short I wouldn’t bother. The set up from The Passage just isn’t interesting enough to justify my time. And I value don’t value my time very highly.
Read if you like: Vampires, post-apocalyptic fiction, killing time.
Don’t read if you like: character or plot development ever moving faster than an amble.
Next up: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher.