I received an electronic copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I had originally intended to read it for last year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge, but took a blogging hiatus around that time and never got around to reading it. I picked it up last week and realized just how much I’d been missing out on.
This is not your ordinary vampire book.
A top-secret military operation called Project NOAH thinks that it has stumbled upon the secret of regeneration and life extension. After following legends about vampires, they discover a virus that significantly alters the human body. The military experiments on a group of twelve death-row inmates, finally perfecting a mutation the virus which they give to a little girl named Amy. Unfortunately, their test subjects are more powerful than they thought, and they escape and wreak havoc on mankind.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first describes the progression of Project NOAH up until the vampires are unleashed, and the second is a post-apocalyptic tale of a small colony of human survivors. The book alternates between point-of-view characters in order to tell a story that’s much larger than any of their individual lifespans. This style of narration reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Founation Trilogy, and it Cronin uses it spectacularly. There’s a lot of description of the characters and their relationships with each other, but it doesn’t weigh the book down. Instead, it makes you more invested in the fate of every single person, and it emphasizes the strength and weaknesses of a community trying to survive in the face of extreme danger.
My initial thought as I read about Project NOAH’s experiments is that there is no way in hell that an IRB (Independent Review Board) would ever sanction that type of experiment. It violates pretty much every rule of the ethical treatment of human subjects currently in existence. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
The characters in the second half of the book face a different ethical question. They see family and friends being turned, and it’s like zombies, really. You know you have to shoot them. At the same time, they seem to retain at least a shadow of the people who they once were, so it’s hard to do it, even though you know you have to. People are taught that the vampires have no souls, but their behavior is a bit more complex and isn’t very well understood.
Cronin’s biggest strength was the way that he showed how life goes on, even when there are vampires and you know you might not live another day. In one part of the book, a band of brave colonists embark on a journey to bring Amy to Colorado. They think that she is the only hope left for humanity, and that they could discover a way to end the vampires. On the way, some members of the group fall in love. One couple has a baby. The fact that it’s the apocalypse doesn’t mean that people stop being people, or that human interactions change in any fundamental way.
The Passage is well worth the time spent reading it (and at more than 700 pages, it does take quite a bit of time to read). It’s the kind of book that makes you ask “Where have you been all my life?!” as you read it. I’d highly recommend it.