The City of Mirrors – Justin Cronin

CityofMirrorssm“History is the stories that leave a mark, the past that refuses to stay past.” It was in 2010 that Justin Cronin’s breakthrough novel The Passage was published, an epic introduction to the girl from nowhere, Amy Harper Bellafonte, a lone survivor found in the ruined wilderness of a country which was once known as the United States of America, overrun and overwhelmed by disease, quarantined from the rest of the world in hopes of isolating the infection and the ravening beasts who carried it, the virals.

A dark, disturbing and achingly beautiful torchlit trip through derelict Americana, in 2012 Cronin released The Twelve, named for the remaining number of first generation virals from whom all the others were descended, whose destruction would rid the world of all their progeny. Though the cost was high and paid in blood, that goal was almost achieved, and all that remains are the malleable Anthony Carter and the original incubator of the infection, the scientist Timothy J Fanning, now known as Zero.

As The City of Mirrors begins, there hasn’t been a single viral sighting in the three years since the battle of Homeland in Iowa, and pressure is mounting on the Civilian Authority to open up the Red Zone beyond the controlled city limits of Kerrville, Texas, a persistent belief that the continent is ready for repopulation. “The age of the viral was over; humanity, brought to the brink, was on the upswing.”

In this city lives Peter Jaxon, former Soldier of the Expeditionary, and his adopted son Caleb, now ten years old, two of 100,000 souls crowded into that walled city, but every night he dreams of Amy, an ongoing fantasy of the remote farmhouse they share, a dream he wonders if she projects into his mind along with the music she plays which “made him think of the way time felt, always falling into the past, becoming memory.”

Also wandering this empty land is Alicia Donadio, former Captain of the Watch and now part viral, as is Amy, powerful and tireless, but drawn across the country by a different voice which speaks in her dreams, calling her to New York. Then there is Lucius Greer, hiding in the Red Zone, harvesting blood with which he feeds to those he keeps in the hull of the Chevron Mariner, Carter and Amy. After a century he can control his hunger, she, after only three years, cannot, but beneath the water line, their minds are hidden from Zero.

On the open waves in his appropriated yacht the Nautilus is Michael Fisher who has found that while the lands have died, the seas have flourished; with no humanity to pollute them or hunt them, the whales have returned. His other discovery is less comforting, the wreck of the Bergensfjord near Houston where he finds a century old newspaper which indicates that two years after the outbreak a related virus swept down from Asia. The rest of the world is dead, and it conceivable it was only the American quarantine which saved them.

Opening with a Biblical retelling of the events of The Twelve and with a very helpful list of dramatis personae tucked at the tail of the tale, The City of Mirrors is a weighty and complicated novel, but there are moments of beauty and Grace amongst the tears, the simple hope of homesteads, humanity and happiness before it comes to the inevitable confrontation with the entity to whom all roads and bloodlines lead.

For the past two books, Zero the Destroyer, Great Devourer of the World, has done little more than lurk in the shadows, a concept rather than a presence, but this is his story, and so of course it is also the story of Timothy J Fanning of Mercy, Ohio, who went to Harvard to lose his virginity and gain a degree in biochemistry. After a shaky start at University he stumbled into and embraced the atmosphere of privilege, entitlement and debauchery which would lead to first his downfall, then that of the world.

His words shaping and defining the experience of the novel with a penetrating truth and immediacy, Cronin’s prose is the beauty of a fading sunset tinged with the unspeakable dread of the coming night and what it hides. While the middle section of the novel feels almost conventional with the master vampire in his lair, his enthralled concubine sent to do his bidding, there are also many passages which match the achievement of the opening volume, and it is clear that the threads of this tapestry have been woven with exacting care to be tied so neatly.

The heartbreak of lost chances set against the grim mundanity of life, the daily routines of survival, the everyday tragedies of circumstance so easily preventable with hindsight, Zero resides in New York Central Station, the ruins of the glassed skyscrapers now become the City of Mirrors, but it is not only the virals who are caught in reflection but the characters themselves as they look back on their tangled and tortured lives.

So long apart from each other, long time acquaintances see the changes in themselves reflected in their reunions; these people are mirrors themselves, but with more responsibility than ever falling upon Peter, the choices he has to make offer no easy options.

Cronin recalls through the memories of the characters incidents from the first book equally important to the readers who have shared this long passage whose own dim and hazy recollections are spurred by the retelling, but beneath this the warnings are there for those who know the history, hidden in plain sight in the pages, the words which trigger dread: as was tagline of The Passage, something is coming. People are disappearing. The virals are moving.

The salvaged Bergensfjord could be a lifeboat for maybe seven hundred out of a whole continent, but two hundred thousand people will be left to die, and the terrifying exodus from the overrun city of the first novel is echoed with even more desperation as Zero’s plan is executed, the culled remnants of the human species driven across the dangerous wilderness to their final refuge, the last boat of out of a dying continent beyond which everything is uncertain, little more than a wish.

If The City of Mirrors is not entirely satisfying it is perhaps because expectation was set so unreasonably high by the flawless first novel of the sequence. While set in the heartland of America the events of The Passage were universal; here the conclusion is tied specifically to the geography of New York City and presupposes a knowledge which the reader may not possess, and nor does falling masonry have the same impact as the emotion found elsewhere in the book, but taken as a whole the trilogy is undeniably one of the most significant cross genre works of the past decade.

The City of Mirrors is available now from Orion



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