Review of “The Passage” by Justin Cronin

Is it possible in any conceivable universe that Justin Cronin did not read Stephen King’s The Stand before he wrote this? Or see the movie series “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later?” No, I doubt it’s possible even in an alternate universe. Cronin has managed to combine them, refashion the product to be suitable for young adult audiences (but sold in both YA and Adult markets), and spin it out to over 760 pages.

The book takes place some twenty years into the future. In brief, a team of scientists and U.S. military develop an experimental drug therapy out of a rare virus believed to “weaponize” human beings. To test the formula, they experiment on death row prisoners. After the first twelve inmates have undergone rather bizarre transformations, the lead scientist wants to use a child for the next iteration. The choice for Subject Thirteen is Amy, a six-year-old girl who had been abandoned at a convent by a single mother.

The FBI agent sent to retrieve the thirteen subjects, Special Agent Brad Wolgast, balks at taking away a small child, and tries to escape with her. They are caught, of course, and returned to the top-secret Colorado bunker. But their future is uncertain: the “virals” as the once convicts -now vampire-zombies – are now called, escape, break down the bunker, and go out into the world wreaking havoc.

The book resumes one hundred years later, and the reader gets a tour of the post-apocalyptic world that remains. One of the characters summarizes succinctly what it’s like in that world:

“Courage is easy, when the alternative is getting killed. It’s hope that’s hard.”

Discussion: The story is told from multiple points of view, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out who is talking. The book could have been abridged quite a bit without losing anything of consequence. There are some mysteries that are never resolved (although apparently a sequel is in the works). Oddly, we never really get to know Amy, who is the lynchpin of the whole book, not to mention, of the book’s universe.

Is The Passage better than post-apocalyptic books such as The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go? I think The Passage just does not measure up to those books. But perhaps that’s not a fair comparison. Consider instead the series by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Life As We Knew It, The Dead And The Gone, and This World We Live In) which probably comes closer to The Passage in terms of the story line (e.g., massive kill-off of the population, and struggle for survival among the remainder). Certainly Cronin’s writing is much better, but otherwise I can’t really say I thought The Passage superior. And yet, I was not tempted to put it down in spite of its length. There’s also something about devoting all that time to characters that makes you miss them when the book is over.

What about this “passage?” What does the title mean? This is a question to which multiple answers are given throughout the book, some of which involve spoilers. But perhaps the most sensible answer is given right at the beginning of the story, when the lead scientist is sending an email to his friend about the virus project:

“When I ask myself why I should turn back now, what I have to go home to, I can’t think of a single reason….whatever happens, whatever I decide…I feel as if I’ve entered a new era of my life. What strange places our lives can carry us to, what dark passages.”

Another explanation comes in the form of one of the epigraphs in front of one of the divisions of the book:

“You who do not remember
Passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
Returns from oblivion returns
To find a voice.”

Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris”

And finally, we hear from Justin Cronin himself, who told the New York Times:

“The vampire narrative deals with the fundamental question, the basic human question, and that is, what part of being human is defined by the fact that we’re mortal? If you got to be immortal, would you be trading away your humanity? It’s the fundamental question of what is death to being alive.”

I take that to refer to the passage between mortality and immortality. Indeed that’s a passage that pretty much defines the book.

Evaluation: Generally I love dystopic fiction, but I think the real world is scary enough without having to come up with zombie-vampire-bat-thingies. Thus, the book was gorier than I thought it would be and sillier than I had hoped it would be. Nevertheless it has some appealing characters with whom you want to spend your time. Too bad a large number of them get eaten.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Ballantine Books, 2010

Note: I am clearly in the minority on this one. This book is causing a sensation, and Ridley Scott has already paid $1.75 million for the film rights.

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55 Responses to Review of “The Passage” by Justin Cronin

  1. Meghan says:

    I genuinely don’t know how I’ll feel about this book – I feel like I’ve read so many conflicting reviews! At least I’m warned about the gore though. That can definitely bug me.

  2. I actually agree with a lot of your review. I haven’t finished The Passage yet, am within the last 100 pages. I think your comparison to Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Moon series is definitely apt. I’m not sure I’d class this among YA books, especially with the pacing, I always feel YA pacing to be particularly fast. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the Passage, and it’s savory pace, just it doesn’t zoom like YA.

    And yeah, I definitely like The Knife of Never Letting Go better, am still greiving over one of the characters from that book.

    • April,

      I agree with you on the general nature and pace of YA books. On the other hand, YA is the big audience these days for books in the vampire line, so I suppose that’s why that marketing decision was made. (Although sometimes I wonder if non-YA bloggers are a bigger market for YA books than YAs!!!)

  3. Julie P. says:

    Very interesting. You might be in the minority but you aren’t alone. I definitely want to read it though — just because of all the buzz.

  4. Trisha says:

    I do not have this book, but as even the negative reviews seem interesting, I may have to buy it. But not before I get Monsters of Men…

  5. Steph says:

    “The book could have been abridged quite a bit without losing anything of consequence.”

    Ugh! I hate when that’s the case! Lately I’ve been finding that every book I read that’s over 450 pages could easily have been trimmed down without anything critical being sacrificed. In fact, I think most of these books would be stronger if they were better edited!

    Interesting to hear your perspective on this one, since as you point out, everyone else has been going gaga for it. I figure I’ll probably read it at some point, but this one will probably be one I borrow from the library, and given that the Nashville library system already has 64 holds on ONE copy, that probably won’t be for a while…

  6. Amanda says:

    I have to admit, this is one book that just didn’t appeal to me at BEA. So many people were lining up to get it, and I just didn’t want to bother. I didn’t realize it was YA or dystopian until reading your review, but still, it just doesn’t sound good for me.

  7. Is it really classified/marketed as YA? That’s the first I heard that, and I would never ever have thought that. I agree with April, the pacing is waaaay slow for YA. Part of the problem with the pacing is, as you said, hundreds of pages could easily have been cut. I was sort of interested in the world at the beginning of the novel, which seemed so dystopian for being so close to our own time, but the looong passages early in the post-apocalyptic part of the story were just sort of there, and really didn’t grab me.

  8. Kay says:

    I’m wondering if your reading of THE STAND first has affected your opinion or not. I say that because THE STAND is one of my favorite books ever, ever, ever. Hmmm….I’m going to read this one, probably on my vacation later this summer, but I’m curious as to what I’ll think. I understand that it will be at least a trilogy or that’s what I read somewhere. Lots of hype about this and that is always iffy. Jill, good job. Gave us a lot to think about.

  9. I love this review, but I have to say I’m really glad they didn’t have so many post-apocalyptic books when I was a teen. I would have taken them so seriously–and I had enough to worry about back then. 🙂

    Great review, as always!

  10. Marie says:

    You know we don’t agree on the book, but I like your review a lot. I never thought of it as YA-appropriate but you’re probably right. I don’t read a lot of this stuff so it seemed fresher to me than maybe it did to you, or something 🙂 Anyway, I think we can agree to disagree 🙂

  11. zibilee says:

    Aahh! I am so torn about this book. Yours is not the only lukewarm review I have seen this week, but I really want to give it a chance. Thing is, I know that I will probably be a little disappointed, since there has just been so much hype for this one. I am not sure if I should go out and buy this one, or wait a little while. I really liked your review and will be looking at it again before making a final decision. Thanks for the great and honest review!!

  12. EL Fay says:

    I love 28 Days/Weeks Later. I think portraying “zombies” as living rabid people is a lot more frightening than the shambling undead. For one, it’s a lot more realistic.

    I’m skeptical about the length of this one. 760 pages? Doesn’t sound like nearly enough story to cover that length. My sister is turning 15 so presumably she’s the audience for The Passage, but I can’t imagine her getting through a slow-paced book this long.

  13. Amy says:

    I really appreciate your review especially because you didn’t rave about the book. I was starting to become suspicious of the raves about how wonderful this book is. But what I really felt about your review is that it was completely honest and heart-felt. Thank you for that.I feel that so long as a book is set in the future in a world quite different than ours it starts out 50+ points ahead of the game and will probably be popular! Now I know that’s not quite true but…. I’m not a fan of gore, vampires, werewolves etc. either so I’m probably not the best person for commenting on this book. I suppose I’ll read this someday just to really see what all the hoopla is about. But I haven’t read Hunger Games yet so I think I’ll buy and read that first!

    ~ Amy

  14. bermudaonion says:

    I think I’m the only person who doesn’t have a copy of this book. I know a lot of people are raving over it, but I imagine I’d feel like you did and I’m not sure I want to invest my time in it.

  15. a few conflicting reviews make me all the more interested!

    I must say that short of War and Peace, I have an issue with any book being that long. Either it should be two books or someone needed an editor with a Big Red Pen to cut out huge chunks.

  16. Meg says:

    Haha — loved your honest, funny review! (But then again, I always do.) The buzz around The Passage has definitely been rampant, but even with my love of dystopian fiction, I’m not sure this one is for me. I completely agree, too, that the real world is scary enough without creating alternate realms in which the majority of the population has been killed off by some sort of creature, and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves.

    And I loved Susan Beth Pfeffer’s books first two books, but I can’t muster up the strength to read This World We Live In just yet. Her novels are incredible, but they give me terrible nightmares!

  17. Ti says:

    Oh my! When we talked about the book I sort of got the impression that you liked it a bit more than what you stated here, but I also know that you read it some time ago and that the review changed a couple of times before coming to this final version.

    I am still writing my review but it will probably post Friday. It’s funny because I don’t think the plot is that wonderful and that is why my review probably won’t even touchon plot, if you can believe it. BUT, I liked the journey. The adventure.

    I doubt that this is being classified as YA though, although it certainly could be read by a young person. Not that much sex and gore..what’s gore when you have all those violent video games out there now?

  18. Valerie says:

    I just read yesterday an article in BookPage (monthly circular distributed by our library; web is http://www.bookpage.com; don’t know if article is online) about Justin Cronin. In the article he says he wrote this story for his daughter, now 13. They had actually passed ideas back and forth; so it makes sense that this book might be geared toward readers who like YA .

    The article mentions his earlier books and I think I’d be more likely to check those out than “The Passage”. They seem very different from “The Passage”!

  19. Jenners says:

    Well, thanks to YOUR wonderfulness and generosity, I will be able to see if I’ll join you in the minority or be one of the masses. I’m curious to see!

  20. softdrink says:

    If it wasn’t so darn long I’d be more tempted to give it a try, despite the zombie-vampire-bat-thingies. Or maybe because of them.

    • Trust me, this is not Moby Dick-like reading! The book is not deep – goes fast! Heck, you just put up with Cathy and Heathcliff for all those weeks! What’s a few vampire-zombie-bat-thingies compared to THOSE two?!!!

  21. Jenny says:

    1. Do children still get abandoned at convents these days? I thought getting abandoned at convents was over with now, and people nowadays left their kids at emergency rooms and things.

    2. Very few things can measure up to The Knife of Never Letting Go. Patrick Ness is just too much of a rock star.

    3. I may never like another vampire book ever again. *sigh*

    • Jenny,

      It was weirder than Amy being abandoned at a convent. The government got a picture of her the moment she arrived on the convent doorstep. …a bit of 1984 snuck into the book? It was never explained!

      But really, I wouldn’t call this a vampire book. If I had to choose, I’d label it as a zombie book! So I think you can consider your vampire reading safe! :–)

      And yes, Patrick Ness. So good!

  22. diane says:

    This is the 3rd or 4th review I read on this one today. I want to read it, but I’m not really into SF, so I’m not sure, but still want to give it a try.

  23. Staci says:

    I don’t think this sounds like one I would like to read, however, my son Marcus would gobble it up!! He’s a zombie freak! 🙂

  24. Michele says:

    Well as you know, I was one of the ones who loved it (and that’s rare for me….I don’t often rave about a book, LOL…in fact, I’m told that I am not generous enough when reviewing books), but I loved reading your opinions on this novel. You’re so well-spoken, it’s always a joy to read your reviews.

    I guess they’re really playing up the vampire bit, although that was such a small bit of the story for me that I really wouldn’t even put it in the same section as vampire/zombie/whatever books. Oh well, looks like they are going for “sales by association.”

    But here’s my new mission: I’ve never read The Stand and yours isn’t the first comparison to the King novel that I’ve read….so because I have a copy of The Stand on my shelf, I’m going to read that in July and do a comparison post just for fun. 🙂

  25. Nymeth says:

    This sounds like a gripping read, even if not exactly life-changing. And sometimes that’s enough to make me happy. Having said that, I think I’ll probably read The Stand instead.

  26. sagustocox says:

    This is a book I would pick up simply because there are vampires in it, though the daunting page count would leave me wary. I’ve heard great reviews of the book, and yours is the first I’ve read that isn’t all that positive. I really am glad that you’ve thrown your voice out there about this book because it tempers the hype for me a bit and brings my expectations (probably) more in line with the reality of the book.

    On a separate note, you should be receiving a book from me soon.

  27. Alyce says:

    It sounded interesting right up until the “vampire-zombies” part. Why oh why must everything be vampires and/or zombies?

  28. Lisa says:

    I’m starting to read more reviews like yours which make me think that if I’m going to read a 760 page book, there are better choices for me.

  29. This was just a 3 stars for me too, makes me wondered if I miss something when there were so may VERY POSITIVE reviews out there!

    My review:
    http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/06/book-review-passage-by-justin-cronin.html

  30. I had only read The Hunger Games out of the other dystopian books you mentioned (and I love this series), which one would you recommend?

    • Of the dystopias I mention, I really love Patrick Ness series, which starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go. I thought it was weird that all these people were praising it, because the title was kind of not appealing, but you just fall in love with the people in this book! And the story is pretty cool too!

  31. The old lady says:

    Please tell me WHO shot viral Galen and saved Theo, Maus, and baby.

  32. Mopsie says:

    This book starts out with a bang. You think the main characters are Amy and Wolgast. Not really; after the transition 100 years into the future, the book becomes a “Lifetime” movie. Too many characters, too many anticlimatic buildups to nothing. I’m finishing it because I paid for it. It’s not totally unreadable, just not as good as portrayed. Like “Rent”, maybe the movie will be better.

  33. Angel says:

    I didn’t like this book but I finished it nonetheless. I was wondering if someone could tell me if there was an explanation that maybe I missed about the zoo scene? Amy says the animals acted that way because “they know who I am” and at that point in the story she wasn’t anything that I know of, just an orphan. If she hadn’t been given the virus later in the story she would have died too so what did the animals know? I am confused.

  34. Pingback: The Passage – Justin Cronin – Farm Lane Books Blog

  35. ima says:

    well, I have to say I agree on mostly everything you wrote. it’s kinda a love-hate for me with this one. I think it could’ve been shorter for once (which doesn’t mean I’m not up to read 700+ pages, I often do, in fact), but some passages just become boring with time and I admit I skipped some parts where I knew what would happen anyway.
    what I never expected was this book to be a vampire book. since (here in Switzerland) it wasn’t advertised as such and NOWHERE on the cover or in the interior does it state it does deal with vampires, I really wished I’d knew before because then I’d probably hadn’t read it (since I just read two other vampire books and was kinda fed up with the theme).
    other than that I liked some characters (especially Wolgast and Micheal, and somehow Lish, which I think have the most depth in personality out of all the characters).
    though cornins diving into psychological states of a person are intersting, they sometimes seemed forced in my eyes. and even though I do love a good cliffhanger and riddles I don’t like it when there so much of it that you have to think every ten chapters when and who you’re reading about.
    so, in my opinion it’s a rather avarage book, not bad but not excellent either, so I guess I’m with you too, when I can’t really fathom the hype about it [and I’m rather curous about how they will do the movie. now that really will be intersting…].

  36. Amanda says:

    My sister and I read this book at the same time…we both finished it at similar times and both said “What the hell was that all about?” I found the first part of the book enthralling, Wolgast and Amy relationship was very moving and I found it hard to put down. When it moved into the apocalyptic era I found it rather confusing with the characters and places and I found myself missing Wolgast and the young Amy. It was far too descriptive and I must admit I found it rather boring. I would not describe this book as a vampire book, that is misleading. The virals were more like serious version of the Zombies in “Sean of the Dead”. The book was left with lots of lose ends, which may have been planned, but I think the Author just lost the plot and direction in which he was heading, which I am not surprised , writing 800 pages!! I pondered the ending for a while and the storyline, trying to make sense of it. Was it biblical? with the twelve main Virals,(disciples) and Amy being the saviour of the world?
    This book was such a let down I was left bemused and I really dont understand the hype. Lets hope the film is better!!

  37. Caggie says:

    I too have just finished this book (I am the sister referred to my Amanda!). I agree with others who said they were confused – who wouldn’t be? There was one part when the virals were referred to as being in the thousands but then we are told that no, “there are only 12”. I think the author lost the plot and just began rambling – he seems to not know how to end it. Far too descriptive and boring in parts. I understand that it is one of a triology so maybe all will become clear eventually. So, no, didn’t like it – thought it was a waste of time.

    • Caggie and Amanda,

      I very much missed Wolgast too – he was definitely one of the better characters. (Although when he was able to show up later – what was that all about?) And of course I definitely agree with you on the zombie issue! Whenever I have pointed to inconsistencies (and you can see more in my recent post on The Stand by Stephen King which compares The Stand to The Passage), fans claim (or at least hope) that all will be clear in subsequent volumes!

  38. Bookjourney says:

    I loved it… I thought it was unique, however have not read The Stand or seen 28 Days. I am excited about the movie and the sequel. I did not read the book but listened to it (35 hours!) on audio.

  39. Paige says:

    I fisnished the book i i didnt really understand it maybe because im a teen but i didnt like how it ended.Like what happens to them all in the end? Or what happens to Amy in the end (cuz she was never had the virsus in her she was just born like that..or did i miss something there?) And why would Pete fall in love with Amy? It was a good book just should have ended differently!

  40. Paige says:

    If you know plz answer my questions:)

  41. Karen Crookes says:

    I felt very mislead by this book. After reading a couple of respected reviews, and the back cover, I settled down for a good long read. However, I soon discovered that some of the characters were good and strong (Amy and Lacey) but others left me questioning who they were!
    I found it difficult to keep up with the plot line, and felt also there was alot of un-necessary waffling. Quite out of character for me, I returned the book to my library half read, thank goodness I hadn’t bought it myself- very disappointing.

    • Karen,

      I always feel that one of the best things about getting a book from the library is that you don’t have to feel so bad if you don’t want to finish it! I will be interested to see if the second book (coming out next year, I believe) will resolve some of the problems with the first!

  42. “The book could have been abridged quite a bit without losing anything of consequence.”

    I felt the opposite. I read so much I’ve become a natural skimmer. I skim without meaning to because most books if you skip a sentence/paragraph here or there you still understand where you are.

    In this book every time I skipped anything accidentally I noticed within a page and had to go back. I felt like every word was important to the plot – you just might now find out why right away.

    Anyway I like it A LOT more than I thought I would and now am looking for more fiction in that vein. The Stand and The Road are now at the top of my TBR pile (with 15 other books).

  43. T.I. says:

    Isn’t it kind of ridiculous to review a book and not discuss the quality of the writing? Cronin’s prose is absolutely first rate, to the level of the classics. Part of the joy in this book is the beautiful/powerful use of language. I have a hard time taking a book review seriously when not one word is spoken on craft. Shouldn’t you be reviewing movies instead?

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