Justin Cronin is an acclaimed writer, and deservedly so: the Harvard graduate is a professor of English at Rice University and an award winning novelist, but recognition of his first two novels was confined to the circles of literary fiction, and the echo of applause, no matter how sincere, does not carry across oceans nor, all too often, pay the bills. Then came The Passage, and everything changed.
With the film rights snapped up by Fox 2000 and Scott Free Productions before it was even published in 2010, that epic novel spanned the century from the events leading up to the apocalypse that swept out of Colorado to consume the United States to the tale of the band of survivors guided from their failing outpost by the eternal child Amy, the only successful creation of the military experiment that bred the virals.
Staring out from bookstores, newsagents and airports in different translations the world over, swept to distant shores on a wave of adulation from readers and critics alike, the haunted face of Amy Harper Bellafonte lured readers into the world created by Cronin’s luminous prose, a chronicle of the downfall of a nation and the hardened few brave enough to set out from behind the walls of protection they had built on their quest to find and destroy Babcock, one of the original twelve test subjects whose escape triggered the events of the first book.
Five years have passed since that expedition, and Peter Jaxon and Alicia Donadio’s efforts to locate any other members of the Twelve have failed; with limited resources, the Texan Expeditionary Force are forced to consider their priorities and the requirement to provide protection to the surviving colonies against more immediate threats, a change of focus Peter, Alicia and Amy are resistant to.
There are unexpected links back to the past in the forms of Lawrence Grey, chemically castrated convict who served his sentence as janitor in the Chalet before becoming the familiar of Subject Zero, the first and most powerful viral, and Lila Wolgast, ex wife of Amy’s FBI protector Brad Wolgast, previously only an angry voice on the phone, now a ghost of a woman stepping through the ashes of the world. The coincidence that these two characters would stumble across each other in the days following the outbreak is a burden of credulity only partially alleviated by the belief held by many of the characters that something beyond their understanding is guiding them.
More convincing is the story of Bernard Kittridge, the man known as Last Stand in Denver, who dominates the early part of the novel with a powerful story from the immediate aftermath of the infection, as he fills a school bus with mismatched survivors and couriers them across the near deserted states in the hope of salvation, as “the mountains shrugged their indifferent rocky bulk at man’s departure,” the horror of their destination rivalling the impact of the first outbreak in The Passage, a class trip to the end of the world.
The Twelve is a fast moving and compelling novel, but suffers in comparison to its predecessor, a criticism balanced by the twin caveats that the middle section of a trilogy is often by definition the least satisfying, and that the epic first tome is a near flawless masterpiece. While that unrolled at a commanding pace, every tortuous step fragmentary joy and heartbreaking loss fully experienced by the reader, here there are rushed confrontations and scenes which could have been expanded upon.
The interludes offer no more insight to the world beyond the remains of America than could be inferred from the first book, though the opening chapter, a retelling of the key events in the form of Biblical verse, is a clever and entertaining way to provide much needed recap that is consistent with the changed world. Instead, we learn more of secondary characters fromThe Passage who serve on the Expeditionary Force, some of whom were survivors of the Massacre of the Fields, an incident recounted from thirteen years before the main narrative of the first novel and which gives The Twelve its dramatic cover.
While the conclusion of The Twelve lacks the equivalent of the unexpected gut punch that closed The Passage with its casual mention of the Roswell Massacre as a historical incident, that event is seen in a surprising new light, as is the loss of the First Colony, where Peter and Alicia grew up, an understanding that reveals that in order to survive they will have to fight more than just virals.