In "The Passage," the first volume of Justin Cronin's dystopian, after-the-vampire-holocaust trilogy, published in 2010, a government plan to infect a dozen death-row inmates with a virus and turn them into a force of bad-ass soldiers has backfired. The 12 escape and infect all in their path. The upshot? A coast-to-coast wasteland teeming with undead predators called "virals."
Here in book two, "The Twelve," Cronin picks up the story, interweaving characters from "year zero" (when the infection hit the fan) with flashes forward to 79 and 97 years hence. Bands of survivors search for fuel, food, and protection. We meet Lila, a doctor half-crazed from PTSD. There's Kittridge, a war veteran who helps save a band of refugees. We are also reunited with Alicia, an army lieutenant and loner, and Amy, our supernatural heroine, who with others continue their hunt for the original 12.
True to form, "The Twelve" performs its dutiful role as a middle book, raising stakes, delivering gads of plot, and providing resolution. But not too much. Much like the "virals," thirsty readers — if they have journeyed this far — will probably keep reading. If this sort of thing is their cup of tea. Er, blood.
By now, the tale of Cronin's rise from literary wallflower to blockbuster knockout has been well-documented. He's got a firm handle on the thriller genre. He can talk military operations, munitions, and violent killings. He intercuts plot lines and taut scenes involving dozens of characters. Yet the physique Cronin flexes is more Tom Clancy than Stephen King.
Also, despite Cronin's impressive literary pedigree, the writing is wildly uneven. Aiming for the heavens, his prose can crash and burn. One howler: The first time our hardened Alicia meets a stray horse, they become "lifelong companions who could tell each other the truest stories of themselves,'' or "if they chose, say nothing at all." Later the A-team's "fates'' are "drawn together as if by a powerful gravitational force.'' Ack.
There are other deficiencies. The trope of telepathic communication among the 12 and various characters adheres to no clear logic. The clumsy religious allegory of "The Zero" (the first scientist infected by the virus) and the dozen blood-drinking super-vampires (apostles, anyone?) is forced. The dreamy astral (or real?) travel to some heaven-like realm comes off as just plain silly.
Cronin is more compelling when he gets real — and gets down and dirty. His take on the "Homeland," his Orwellian militaristic colony, rips a page from today's headlines. Cronin's most tragic (and funny) character might be Guilder, a likable government man who loses his father to Alzheimer's and his heart to a hooker. Calling his security guards "overgrown frat boys," he wonders, "[W]ere they grown on some kind of farm? Cultured in a petri dish?"
Later, Cronin has Guilder musing on "the major problem with immortality, apart from the peculiar diet: everything began to bore you." Cronin's gallows humor is a welcome departure from the more treacly passages.
Most biting is Cronin's grim calculus of the human condition. His characters are wrenched from past loves. (And in the future there is no chocolate.) One woman is described as having "plunged down inside herself for too long." But faced with the apocalypse, survivors acquire the necessary emotional armor. Trapped by past happiness, they forget to survive. For "[l]ove had sealed their doom," Cronin concludes. "Which is what love did."
"The Twelve" may be steeped in doom, but it isn't particularly scary. Only when Cronin's vampire tale taps into veins of true despair does the novel come to life.