Justin Cronin’s Passage series has always been fascinating for its refusal to easily be pigeonholed into any one genre. On one level, it’s an apocalyptic horror epic, one in which a tribe of vampiric creatures has wiped out most of the population of the Earth. On another level, it’s a survival story, one in which people are working to rebuild civilization in the face of unimaginable disaster. And on yet another level, it’s a rich character drama, one in which people’s choices and character arcs drive the action every bit as much as the threats around them.
That refusal to stick to any one genre is both the best and the most frustrating thing about The City of Mirrors, the final entry in the trilogy. At times uplifting, at times heartbreaking, at times terrifying, The City of Mirrors takes all of Cronin’s habits to extremes. This is a book that features the most terrifying and nightmarish sequence of any of the novels to date; it’s also one which dedicates a huge percentage to the backstory of its major villain – a backstory which is mainly about a young student navigating his complicated relationship with his friends and struggling with his attraction to one of them.
That means that City of Mirrors can often be frustrating, even while it’s constantly engaging. Cronin’s prose remains solid, and his willingness to focus on character depth has always been one of the pleasures of the series. Every character, no matter how major or minor, gets respect and a fully realized backstory; it’s a choice that’s paid off again and again in this series. The choice to go to this level of depth is a somewhat strange one, and one that undeniably hurts the pacing of this book. And yet, once you finish the book, you start to realize that Cronin has more on his mind than simply wrapping up his apocalyptic epic.
Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cronin had ended the series already. (Spoilers for The Twelve follow.) After all, by the end of the previous book, The Twelve, the titular Twelve – the original infected – had been destroyed, and peace seemed to be inevitable. Yes, Amy’s fate was up in the air, as was Alicia’s, but the story seemed to be at a sort of ending point. (Spoilers end.) Indeed, it’s a feeling shared by many characters in the novel, who feel that the story is at an end, and that humanity is finally entering a world of peace and rebuilding.
But The City of Mirrors reminds us that there’s one major threat still surviving, and focuses on that threat: the originator of the plague, a creature only known as Zero. And in Cronin’s hands, this final battle is as much ideological as it is physical. Is there any reason for hope? Does humanity deserve to survive? What, exactly, does survival mean, and at what cost should we attempt to survive? And what part does hope play in all of this? Cronin takes on the questions that underlie so many apocalyptic horror tales – from The Stand to The Fireman to The Walking Dead – and makes them part of the text, thus justifying the time spent on Zero’s backstory. Yes, it’s long, and it sort of wrecks the pacing…but it ends up being central to the philosophical battle at the heart of the novel.
That conflict extends all the way to the ending of the book, which finds Cronin looking at the far larger picture as to what it all means. It’s something he’s been hinting at all through the series, and yet that final section of The City of Mirrors is nonetheless quietly moving, giving us a true epilogue to the story, and an ending that nicely brings his themes together. The endings of apocalyptic tales are always complicated – just look at the three very different endings (or lack thereof) of the titles I mentioned above – and it’s rare to find one that moves so strongly toward optimism. And yet, it works here, giving an ending that both wraps up the story and feels emotionally satisfying. The City of Mirrors is an ambitious book, and one that’s far more “literary” and less conventional than its predecessors. And yet, nonetheless, it sticks the landing for the trilogy, satisfying the reader on a variety of levels while still providing the thrills and excitement we’ve come to demand from the series. It may be a little lumpy at points, but I’ll forgive that for the level of satisfaction that I got from the book as a whole.