The Twelve, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

13281368The Passage, Justin Cronin’s first novel in a trilogy, introduced us to a horrific post-apocalyptic world, one created when a military experiment went horribly awry, unleashing a vampiric plague that decimated the human race. Over the course of that book, Cronin gave us a window into the civilizations that had built back up nearly 100 years later, and watched as they began to fight back against the wave of nightmarish creatures that controlled their lives. It was thrilling, imaginative stuff, and a book that hinted at much larger ambitions than you might have expected. (I recently re-read it; you can read my review here if you like.)

Now comes The Twelve, which follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by giving us a far more sprawling timeframe than we might expect. The Twelve doesn’t just continue the story of The Passage; it also flashes back to the early days of the plague, giving us a sense of what happened after the initial outbreak we saw in The Passage, as well as helping us to understand the seeds that have been planted that are bearing fruit nearly a century later. That’s ambitious stuff, and indeed, much of  The Twelve seems like an effort to create something even stranger and more ambitious than its predecessor, as our heroes find themselves in a remarkably bizarre post-apocalyptic community, we start to learn more about the Twelve (the original hosts for the virus), and our characters develop in unexpected ways – most notably Amy, whose eternally young body is beginning to show signs of change that are troubling indeed.

Yes, it’s a fair point to notice that The Twelve feels like it’s borrowing from all kinds of books, most notably The Stand in its theatrical, showy climax. And yet, none of that really detracts from the fact that it all works – it’s exciting, scary, involving, and incredibly rich, and a lot of that is thanks to how much time Cronin spends with his characters. Even characters who have little more than glorified cameos get depth and nuance, whether they be villain or hero, and that investment makes just about every death count to us, even when they’ve only just arrived in the book. More than that, though, it elevates the stakes beyond the usual “life or death” stakes of so much post-apocalyptic fiction; there are genuine emotional stakes as well, as characters realize that there’s more to life than just living – there’s love, ideals, and hope that all matter just as much, if not more.

More than any of that, though, The Twelve also brings out some truly fascinating new characters, most notably Lila, a doctor whose involvement with the virals and nearly simultaneous mental breakdown combine to make her one of the most dangerous and tragic characters of the series. Often completely unable to distinguish her carefully constructed fantasies from reality, Lila could easily be played as a nightmarish villain, one whose deranged worldview and astonishing powers makes her a potent threat. But in Cronin’s hands, Lila becomes something more human and sympathetic, while never detracting from the danger and power she represents. In many ways, that’s The Twelve in a nutshell. What could be a simple tale of epic good versus epic evil instead becomes something more nuanced, emotional, rich, and ultimately satisfying. And if it’s a little derivative in parts, that’s more than made up for by the skill with which it’s all put together, and the characters with which Cronin populates his book.

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