The Passage begins a little like a Raymond Carver story, describing how the novel’s enigmatic central figure, Amy Harper Bellafonte, came to be...The story of Amy’s first few years is a piercingly naturalistic tale of downward mobility amid truck stops and cheap motels. Like much of the book, it’s suffused with the doomed yearning of adults who want to protect children from the brutality of the world. Then, suddenly, you’re reading documents about an ill-fated scientific expedition to ‘the jungles of Bolivia,’ and the weird virus brought back by the handful of survivors … Yes, there are vampires, although they’re semiconscious beasts, a far cry from the suave, politicking predators of True Blood or the immortal dreamboats of Twilight...they stand for the ravening external forces — time, violence, madness, death — that are forever battering against the walls of every hopeful community.
The Passage, the first volume of a planned trilogy, doesn't have any interest in pursuing ol' Count Dracula; it's all about stitching together the still-beating scraps of classic horror and science fiction, techno thrillers and apocalyptic terror. Although a clairvoyant nun plays a crucial role, Cronin has stripped away the lurid religious trappings of the vampire myth and gone with a contemporary biomedical framework … Cronin proves himself just as skillful with the dystopic future as he is with the techno-thriller that opens The Passage. This second section sinks deep into the exotic customs of these beleaguered survivors. We meet a vibrant cast of citizen warriors, who have to ask themselves each day if it's worth fighting against the dying of the light.
What's happening in other countries isn't known. Communications are cut off. Commerce, manufacturing and government are wiped out. What does exist are a smattering of isolated outposts where self-sustaining humans live in barricaded fortresses and bright lights run by dying generators keep the virals away at night. This throwback to a pre-technological world makes for a credible and hypnotic narrative … Always simmering in the background of this frightening thriller — first in a trilogy — is a heartfelt portrayal of the human capability to fight, endure and hope for a better world.
...a 766-page doorstop, a dystopian epic that’s the first installment in a projected vampire trilogy … While it relies at times on convention, The Passage is astutely plotted and imaginative enough to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader … Cronin leaps back and forth in time, sprinkling his narrative with diaries, e-mail messages, maps, newspaper articles and legal documents. Sustaining such a long book is a tough endeavor, and every so often his prose slackens into inert phrases. For the most part, though, he artfully unspools his plot’s complexities, and seemingly superfluous details come to connect in remarkable ways.
As committed as Cronin is to this brave new world of mortal combat and stunted technology, he's even more concerned with making his characters recognizably human. The first 250 pages are nearly flawless. Set slightly in the future, it weaves an intricate but always compelling story … Honing in on vampires' traditional immortality, The Passage initially has the lineaments of a morality tale. The middle third begins with a dizzying series of enticing documents, found material that lends a human touch to the far-future setting. But soon enough, The Passage slips into a less-exacting version of the voice used earlier, and the narration often feels portentous and slack. And, although the effect of omnipresent fear can be enhanced by keeping the Other as a murky object of anxiety, it can also defang the creature in question.
Mr. Cronin gets The Passage off to a vigorous start. We meet Amy Harper Bellafonte, who is modestly billed in the book’s first sentence as someone who will become ‘the Girl from Nowhere — the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years’ … In The Passage scientists aren’t the only ones who treat ‘vampire’ as a word to be shunned. Mr. Cronin avoids it too, preferring to use other terms when undead, bloodsucking creatures start entering his story … This already-exhaustive book is studded with diary entries, academic papers and other ostensible evidence that its fictitious stories of destruction are true. Every now and then, as when the Gulf of Mexico is described as an oil slick, these accounts are even scarier than intended.
The Passage opens strongly, working best in its initial 250 pages, as Wolgast struggles to protect Amy against his employers and the holocaust they unwittingly unleash. The chapters are action-packed, the details of Project Noah intriguing and chilling, and the agent's relationship with the girl develops in a way that acknowledges both Amy's uniqueness and her common humanity … He deftly choreographs a couple of big, cinematic set pieces, but also knows how to orchestrate the small, character-shaping moments. He wisely keeps his vampires under wraps, for the most part, revealing them only when the stakes are highest.
The opening chapters are so effective that it takes ages to settle into the second section, which is set in the post-apocalyptic world left by the inevitable release of the virus. The action had been fast and violent, with helicopters and bombs; in part two, there's a new cast of characters living a century later who plod round on horses and get excited if they catch a rabbit. The pace does pick up, though, and Cronin's postviral world is inventive and interesting … the only character who appears in both sections of the novel is a six-year-old girl called Amy (or The Girl from Nowhere, as Cronin has it). She should be fascinating – Amy possesses ill-defined special powers and has kept her humanity despite viral infection – but readers have no access to her interior life and she barely speaks.
Although The Passage is the first of three books, Cronin gets everything right the first time out: suspenseful pacing, using third-person viewpoints that alternate throughout his massive tome (766 pages, 2.4 pounds), interesting, semi-formulaic characters with all-too human flaws (from a pedophile laborer and a misunderstood prisoner, to a motherly African nun and an FBI agent with a powerful paternal instinct), and just enough verisimilitude in his SF-cum-horror plot to have readers believing the fictional apocalypse in his story just might be plausible … It’s not giving anything away to say that plans go awry, subjects escape and infect others, and soon an end-of-the-world scenario is playing out as those who are infected — called virals — hunt down those who are not … While Cronin is sure- handed in the chapters that delve into each character’s motivations and background, he is equally masterful in the action set-pieces, keeping the narrative speeding forward like a runaway train.
Certainly Cronin has fun with his destroyed America, one in which Jenna Bush was governor of Texas, and, in an eerie parallel with today’s headlines, the oil industry is under federal protection. Later, some decades after the initial outbreak, we encounter a whole set of new characters, and they take us through the second half of The Passage. This ragtag colony survives in a Walden-like castle compound, fighting back the bloodthirsty devils … Cronin has a literary novelist’s eye for detail and local color, and an eagerness to create believable characters with feelings. However, this impulse collides with the necessities of the supernatural, sci-fi horror thriller. The collision is not always pretty.
This looks like the classic set-up for a science-fiction post-apocalypse adventure. The world we know has been destroyed (often by forces we ourselves created), and remnants of humankind are scrabbling through the ruins and hoping, eventually, to rebuild. But despite some familiar sci-fi elements, like a convoy of resurrected Age of Oil vehicles, The Passage is at heart a horror story … It's a story that works even though the plague of vampires at its heart is as completely, thoroughly ridiculous as having the Earth invaded by a civilization of extraterrestrial elephants.It works because Cronin is a superb writer. He drops us into a distressingly plausible near future by taking things like license-plate recognition systems and extrapolating just the bleakest little bit. He builds a discomfiting framework and lets our imaginations do the scary work.
The Passage examines what happens when a more traditionally literary novelist is loosed in Stephen King territory. The book is one of the best-written examples of the genre, but it’s weirdly paced … This is one of the better instances of someone taking the time to do popcorn fiction right in recent memory, and every time the book threatens to sag under the weight of Cronin’s more literary conceits, he introduces interesting insights into how the people in the far future survive in a world ravaged by vampires of the monstrous, non-sexy variety, or produces an action sequence involving those vampires loping after a runaway train with humanity’s last, best hope for survival on board. The Passage is paced oddly, but not poorly. Cronin never does the expected, but that becomes a virtue as the book unleashes beautiful payoffs in its latter moments.
Bad feds and good guys alike race around, trying to keep the world safe for American democracy. In the end the real protector of civilization turns out to be a ‘little girl in Iowa,’ Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has been warehoused in a nunnery by her down-on-her-luck mother. Mom, a waitress with hidden resources of her own, pitches in, as does a world-weary FBI agent—is there any other kind? Thanks to Amy, smart though shy, the good guys prevail. Or so we think, but you probably don’t want to go opening your door at night to find out.