The PassageI tend to avoid reading books that are part of a series. Series create problems. You might be disappointed in future instalments, there’s the distinct possibility there won’t be a finite ending and you’re often left waiting forever for the next book. In the case of The Passage the arrival of Justin Cronin’s next instalment, The Twelve, was enough to convince me that now might be the time to break my rule. There’s just enough closure in The Passage to help me cope with the fact that it’s a trilogy but there are just as many questions left unanswered.

The Passage opens about ten years in the future. The United States’ war in the Middle East has continued for fifteen years, Hurricane Vanessa completely destroyed New Orleans a few years after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. is more militarised, but the world is largely the same. The military have begun a top-secret experiment called ‘Project Noah’ using death row criminals as test subjects, bringing together a disparate group of people including FBI Agent Brad Wolgast, a six year old girl named Amy, a nun from Sierra Leone, and death row inmate Anthony Carter. ‘Project Noah’ turns the inmates into what future generations will term ‘virals’, essentially vampires. These vampiric traits spread like a virus resulting in a pandemic that wipes out most of the United States’ population, and possibly the worlds’. Cronin spends time sharing the back story of these characters, encouraging us get to know them. Then, less than a third in, the story leaps ahead almost one hundred years into a post-apocalyptic world. This change is jarring but allows Cronin to explore how society reorganises itself after a catastrophe, widening his scope to take in cults, religion, and government instead of simply becoming the vampire equivalent of a slasher film.

The concept of vampires as mindless creatures created by a virus becoming the majority species, instead of single beings skulking in the dark, has been imagined before (Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend) but that was a spare, haunting, one man against the world scenario. The Passage is tremendous, epic in its reach. Cronin has taken traditional vampire qualities, their penchant for mind control and their seductive powers, and amped them up, using the relationship between a queen bee and her workers as his template. Cronin also inserts the welcome addition of an almost American road trip-style quest to his tale of vampires, with a large portion of the novel devoted to an intrepid group travelling across the country in search of fellow survivors.

Characters are not The Passage’s strength. There’s the stoic, troubled law enforcement guy, the tough girl, the caring young nurse, the guy who doesn’t think he’s a leader but deep down he is, the nerdy guy. That being said, they’re solid examples of the established archetypes and do their bit to add some emotion to the real strength, the story. Vampires are well-trodden territory and while Cronin doesn’t completely reinvent (I got a slight sense of déjà vu reading The Passage at times) he really knows how to write vividly. His action sequences, in particular, are fervent and heart-pounding, and the air of portent and mystery surrounding Amy’s destiny and the virals’ hidden agenda kept me captivated. The Passage is an exciting page-turner, the type of escapist fun that transports you to another world.

Apocalypse-themed fiction seems to have grown in popularity in recent years. And everyone seems to be reading it, even people that wouldn’t have touched speculative fiction before. Perhaps with the Mayan-predicted apocalypse upon us we all are concerned that the end really is nigh. The Passage, in particular, is eminently readable, and fairly accessible to people who don’t usually read fantasy, horror or science fiction. However, recently someone who’d just started The Passage asked me if she should keep reading it or whether it was just more vampire attacks, death and destruction. The short answer was yes, it is a post-apocalyptic vampire book after all. There’s also hope and love mixed in, if you’re that way inclined. I, personally, love a good vampire attack so I believe I’ll be reading the next instalment soon.