Every new vampire story absorbs and reconfigures the tradition, as Justin Cronin aptly demonstrates in The Twelve — the second installment to a vampire trilogy that began in 2010 with Cronin’s blockbuster novel The Passage. If that book was a bit twee at times, it was also smart, well crafted and entertaining. Fans will be happy to learn that The Twelve delivers much of the same vitality and vision. Like its predecessor, it is a strange new creature for the 21st century: the literary superthriller, driven at once by character and plot … Putting us back at Year Zero may feel slightly regressive in a sequel of this scope, but Kittridge’s ordeal nonetheless enthralls. Though there’s nothing here quite like the artful and plaintive first third of The Passage, these human relationships remain well developed and emotionally affecting.
So although I loved The Passage, the first book in Justin Cronin's vampire apocalypse trilogy, I opened the The Twelve hesitantly. Would he sustain our fascination or would the tale founder in a swamp of digressions and gore? The Twelve is even better than The Passage … At its heart, Cronin is writing a parable of damnation and redemption – a message emphasized by the story's host of Christian symbols. The weapon of choice against the virals, the crossbow, is called a ‘cross.’ And it is hardly coincidental that there are 12 tribes of vamps led by 12 hellish apostles, or that humanity's hope rests in a child. Cronin's apocalypse novels prove that good writers needn't stay mired in realism. And make no mistake. Cronin is a very good writer indeed.
The end of The Passage suggests that the sequel might continue that quest; it's here, but it's a long time coming. In fact, about 200 pages of The Twelve pass before Peter reappears. The narrative suffers from his absence, as well as from the lack of mission. The book's title implies that the 12 original vampires — all human test subjects plucked from Death Row (clearly a bad idea) — will be hunted down. Readers bringing that expectation to this book will be disappointed … The Passage created an addictive world, but in The Twelve, it's already familiar. What starts to show through, in the slower parts, are weak characterizations. The main figures carried over from the first book, including fierce Alicia, mysterious Amy and tinkerer Michael, are still robust, but others are too often clichés.
The second installment in Mr. Cronin’s trilogy is The Twelve, and it will spoil nothing to reveal that this book is strictly a gap filler. It moves from the steaming wreckage left by The Passage to a battle cry for the third installment: ‘You bastard. Here I come’ … If only this silliness could be enjoyed somehow. But The Twelve gurgles and drowns in it, to the point where it’s impossible to believe this book is 200 pages shorter than The Passage. (Though it is.) Both drag interminably (and strangely unglamorous: The Twelve snakes its plot around the Texas oil business, replete with rust, sludge, shafts and winches.)
Now, finally, comes the long-awaited second volume, and as much as it pains me to say it, The Twelve bites … What’s truly bizarre is that a novel so burdened with exposition manages to provide so little necessary explanation. Don’t even think about starting this volume if you haven’t committed the first one to memory … Again and again, suspense is drained away by the book’s choppy structure, as though the dastardly government virus that caused vampirism also caused attention deficit disorder. When the various parts of this ramshackle plot finally came together, I couldn’t tell if I were truly grateful or just suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
True to form, The Twelve performs its dutiful role as a middle book, raising stakes, delivering gads of plot, and providing resolution. But not too much. Much like the ‘virals,’ thirsty readers — if they have journeyed this far — will probably keep reading. If this sort of thing is their cup of tea. Er, blood … Despite Cronin’s impressive literary pedigree, the writing is wildly uneven. Aiming for the heavens, his prose can crash and burn … Cronin is more compelling when he gets real — and gets down and dirty. His take on the ‘Homeland,’ his Orwellian militaristic colony, rips a page from today’s headlines. Cronin’s most tragic (and funny) character might be Guilder, a likable government man who loses his father to Alzheimer’s and his heart to a hooker.
Once again Cronin has superbly handled the difficult task of writing a character-driven adventure story. But whereas The Passage concerned itself primarily with the dynamic of good people struggling to survive a world infested with bad monsters, The Twelve focuses largely on an aspect of the apocalypse that Cronin touched on only lightly in the first installment: the vampires remain terrifying, but they’re arguably less terrifying than the humans who have decided to collaborate with them in order to survive … A surprise of The Twelve is that Cronin continues to move the narrative back and forth in time, from the shock of the initial outbreak to the depopulated wasteland that exists a century later. This has the dual effect of allowing him to further fill out a rich and complex back-story and also to rather neatly address one of the major criticisms of the first book.
If The Passage was concerned with the battle between man and beast and the despair inherent in being a survivor, The Twelve has at its core the question of what makes a human being human. Despite its title, The Twelve is not really a book about hunting down the remaining 12 original virals – Cronin clearly understood that this would quickly start to seem repetitive. Instead, this book switches gears to examine a new breed of immortal humans who have been infected, to one degree or another, with the virus … The fact that The Twelve requires a four-page dramatis personae to keep everyone straight is perhaps a sign that Cronin could have lost a character or two...and Cronin's jumpy writing style – no cliffhanger complete without a subsequent total change of setting – can be utterly maddening, even if he does tie all the disparate threads together in the end.
If The Passage is the trilogy's Genesis, this second book, The Twelve, is its Exodus, a complex narrative of flight and forgiveness, of great suffering and staggering loss, of terrible betrayals and incredible hope. But whereas The Passage sets its philosophy, allegory and fictional artifice on the backbone of a terrific blood-curdling thriller, in The Twelve, the suspense is hobbled beneath a crushing burden of too many time jumps and too many characters … No doubt Cronin is a prophetic and passionate writer, capturing a world of ‘emotional incontinence’ where ‘the drive to kill’ has become our nature, where ‘humanity [is] dissolving and taking its stories with it,’ and where ‘the journey [has] acquired its own meaning, independent of any destination.’ And so if The Twelve is humanity's wandering in the proverbial wasteland, then the novel's ending suggests the final book in the trilogy will be a revelation.
Now comes The Twelve, the second book in Cronin's trilogy, in which humankind's struggles continue, but somehow the story is less compelling. There's no diminution of elegant writing. But the story flounders as if the roiling terror of The Passage has been diluted by characters less well-defined and a story line too small for the more than 500 pages it fills. There are wonderfully scary set pieces, and female characters, including Alisha and Sara, are fierce warriors bursting with heart and determination, but the novel's power is less striking … The biblical style of the prologue — ‘For it came to pass that the world had grown wicked …’ — is confusing. The Dramatic Personae, which lists about eight dozen characters and families, only adds to the reader's befuddlement. But lovers of The Passage shouldn't give up. The Twelve's final 100 pages are energized by a human rebellion worthy of the term ‘epic.’
Cronin’s core cast members have moved on. They’re all over the place, both figuratively and literally—and so too, in turn, is The Twelve. A stupendous proportion of it is spent simply getting the gang back together; adding insult to injury, almost nothing of note happens until they are. And then? … Excepting sections at the very beginning and end of the text, Cronin’s prose is considerably less… considered than it was at the outset of his epic. Characters new and old are developed in broad strokes only; the plot progresses in frustrating fits and starts; the sense of tension prevalent in The Passage is practically absent. Book two of this trilogy just hasn’t the heart of the first part. Credit to the author, then, that even in light of this laundry list of issues, The Twelve compels—to the point that I had a hard time putting it down.
The book is oddly, ponderously structured, flitting through time in decidedly bizarre ways and putting so much pressure on the upcoming final book in this trilogy to make the story tie together elegantly that Cronin has essentially left himself no room to stick the landing. Yet the book is compulsively readable. And while it struggles in some places where The Passage soared, that’s seems to be because Cronin took some of the more pervasive criticisms of the earlier book to heart. The Passage was an odd hybrid of character-driven and plot-driven fiction; the second tips more toward the latter, but Cronin has become a much better writer of this kind of story. The plot is always chugging forward, and while the overall contours are mostly predictable (as they were in The Passage), the specific moments and events driving the narrative aren’t.
Cronin serves up a largely predictable high-concept blend of The Alamo and The Andromeda Strain, but his yarn has many virtues: It’s very well-paced. It’s not very pleasant (‘A strong smell of urine tanged in her nostrils, coating the membranes of her mouth and throat’), but it’s very well-written, far more so than most apocalypse novels, and that excuses any number of sins. And it’s always a pleasure to see strong women go storming around as the new sheriffs in town in a world gone bad, even if they’re sometimes compelled to drink blood to get their work done.