The Twelve feels like a post-apocalyptic cover novel, even more so than its bestselling predecessor, The Passage. Justin Cronin lifts liberally from the classics—a little Margaret Atwood here, a touch of Walter M. Miller there, several cups of condensed Stephen King bubbling away—in a way that vacillates between homage and cheeky theft. 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.
The Passage began in a world where a military-created virus turned one professor and 12 convicted criminals into super-vampires called Virals, who escaped and plunged North America (there are hints Europe and the other continents were unscathed) into chaos and darkness. The book then abruptly lurched forward nearly a century, putting the residents of a tiny human outpost in the California desert in touch with the young girl who was afflicted with the virus without turning into a vampire. The book ended with a semi-cliffhanger, leaving several characters’ fates in question.
The foremost thing about The Passage was just how weird it was. For readers able to get on its wavelength, it proved an oddly structured delight, one that didn’t give a shit about leaving the plot behind for several hundred pages of what amounted to a quirky small-town novel awkwardly intersecting with a post-apocalyptic vampire novel. Many people pushed it away, for obvious reasons, but The Passage excelled in Cronin’s ability to evoke tenderness and loss, and to sketch in his characters in just a few sentences, then deepen them as the epic tale took root. The Twelve keeps both of these skills largely intact, but it also feels more focused, and that focus draws attention to some of Cronin’s less-worthy qualities, like a tendency to lean too heavily on sentimentality that turns some passages of the book into sugary-sweet sludge, or the fact that avid fans of post-apocalyptic literature will have read this all before, probably many times over. (Cronin also can’t stop himself from embracing several too-broad types, including a mystical black man and, sigh, an autistic twentysomething who just wants to drive a school bus.)
For better or worse, The Passage reads like a novel written by someone who isn’t afraid to try all new things, even if not all of them work. It’s derivative, but also deeply personal, and the two tones work together in spite of themselves. On a technical level, The Twelve is much better written, but also feels slightly more soulless, as if making the whole enterprise several hundred pages shorter left Cronin bereft of rabbit trails to follow off into the plot’s hinterlands.
Yet even with all of this working against him, Cronin remains adroit at approaching his structure and characters from interesting angles. Instead of plunging forward from the cliffhanger, The Twelve initially sends readers back to the era when the Virus was first sweeping the continent. The hope is both to establish a new set of characters and to give a better view of the events only glanced at in The Passage. These 150 pages are mostly terrific (even though they feature that bus driver), and the rest of the novel—which follows more directly from The Passage—does a much better job of tying past to present and making all the plot threads matter. In particular, there’s a beautiful symmetry to the way Cronin leaves behind the world of the newborn Virals and the way he leaves behind his future world; he uses the past to inform the mysteries he’s teasing in the present. It’s skillful stuff, though it creates an expectation that the third book will now have to wrap up storylines in multiple time periods. (Cronin does drop in new locations and eras here.)
Cronin also hasn’t lost his talent for quick-sketching characters, then deepening them. The surviving characters of the original novel all follow believable arcs, and Cronin is great at coming up with a new character who sparks with life for just a few pages, then is ripped away from readers shortly thereafter. Plus, he’s greatly improved his action sequences, and while the middle of the book occasionally strains from constant Viral attacks, the closing 100 pages expertly build tension and bring several mysteries to a head.
The Twelve has its flaws, but Cronin’s writing quality continues to lift it above what could easily become a morass of easy contrivance and eye-rollingly vague spirituality. And even if the book had none of that, it would have Lila Kyle and Amy, two characters linked through strange circumstances who drive the novel’s best portions. The possibly insane, deeply maternal Lila pushes the best parts of the mid-apocalyptic sections, while Amy continues her Passage role of being simultaneously a symbol and a recognizable young woman finding her way in a terrifying world. For all The Twelve’s struggles to act as a bridge between its predecessor and whatever’s coming next, whenever the book turns to these two women, it succeeds.