“The Twelve” by Justin Cronin (Ballantine, 564 pages, $28)
While Justin Cronin had published two critically well-received novels, “The Summer Guest” and “Mary and O’Neil,” which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, he burst onto the best-seller list in 2010 with “The Passage,” a blockbuster dystopian novel.
That book told of a girl named Amy who is taken to a facility in Colorado, where a government experiment goes wrong and unleashes an army of deadly creatures that soon engulf America. Amy becomes the world’s best hope for survival.
“The Twelve” is the second book of a trilogy. Like “The Passage,” it recounts events in the present, then jumps 100 years into the future. At the beginning of the apocalyptic catastrophe, we meet three main characters: Lila, a doctor who’s expecting a baby and becomes delusional; Kittridge, a former special-ops soldier who fights the creatures called virals; and April, a teenager trying to protect her younger brother from death and destruction. They encounter one another as they navigate their way through a dangerous landscape across Kansas, Nebraska and into Iowa.
Then the narrative jumps 100 years into the future, where Amy and others try to overcome the power of the 12 original virals or vampires who control the thousands of virals that prey on the dwindling population of survivors. How these are connected to the 12 is complicated and not entirely clear to me.
The fast-paced narrative moves from one set of characters to another, an unsettling experience that nevertheless keeps one reading, longing for everything to tie together. Cronin is adept at building suspense, though with so many characters and plots, it nearly overwhelms the reader.
Of particular note is the presence of strong female characters — not only Amy but Alicia, a fighter extraordinaire, and Sara, a mother who is captured and taken to Fort Powell, Iowa, a horrific place that is like a concentration camp, and who fights to survive and save her daughter.
Cronin has noted in interviews that the idea for The Passage Trilogy came from a challenge from his 8-year-old daughter to write the story of “a girl who saves the world.” From that idea he has created a whole other world with many characters and complex narratives.
This world, much of it set in the middle of the country, from Texas up to Iowa, mostly rings true, though at one point he mentions “a grid of cornfields” (not wheat fields) in western Kansas.
Cronin teaches at Rice University, and his fondness for literature comes through often. Kittridge, holed up in Denver, reads books by Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, Fitzgerald and Melville. Cronin writes: “There was something in the pages of these books that had the power to make him feel better about things, a life raft to cling to before the dark currents of memory washed him downstream again.”
Beyond the pleasures of a well-written thriller with characters that have some complexity, reading “The Twelve” makes one wonder about the popularity of such dystopian novels. Perhaps it’s a way to face our fears, even when they aren’t realistic. And there’s pleasure in seeing resolution to the struggle against such deadly threats to humanity.
A final resolution, however, will have to wait for the third and final volume in Cronin’s trilogy. I’m hooked enough to want to read it.