Saturday, August 07, 2010

Book Review – The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage
Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books
784 pages
ISBN 0345504968 / 9780345504968


In my humble estimation Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” qualifies as an Instant Classic. It has all the elements of a great work – brilliantly written characters that are flawed but oh, so very real, a twisting mystery that will keep you immersed in the narrative and engaged by the characters, the promise of a good scare right around the corner, viral vampires, unwitting heroes, and a huge, early following of fans. Do not be swayed by the occasional naysayers who proclaim the book too long or too wordy (whatever that means). It is worthy of your attention and a worthwhile read. The characters are real people, the narrative descriptive, and in some cases bloody, gory, and disturbing. The premise, which is not your average vampire story, is reminiscent of earlier post-apocalyptic literature but with a twist and it has something many of the others do not, a grand epic, fantasy feel to it and not because of its heft but of its engrossing content.

Sweeping across almost one-hundred years in the post-apocalyptic vampire-infested plains of western America “The Passage” is an engrossing and epic tale which begins when a government experiment creates twelve different strains of vampire-zombies that escape and infect the entire world. However, small pockets of humans have survived and while the “virals” stalk the landscape some communities have managed to survive and even thrive in a world swarming with flesh-eaters. “The Passage” is an end-of-the-world road-trip filled with discovery, mystery, pain, and loss. But buried deep underneath all that is the promise of love, new life, and happiness. It’s ours to find.

One of the most compelling elements of this book is that I could sense pieces of similar earlier works buried in the canon. There is, of course, the obvious good versus evil and a government strain that gets loose killing millions of people much like Stephen Kings’ “The Stand.” There are survivors that live on the brink of extinction and could be annihilated at any moment as found in Larry Niven’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” (among many others.) There is an epic battle between surviving factions, although one of them is not quite human, as in David Brin’s “The Postman.” Also, which I found very interesting, were the military factions fighting in the wasted lands of a broken America which is reminiscent of James Axler’s Deathlands series. An element of technology, in both cases, electricity, is isolated for many years like in Jeanne DuPrau’s “The City of Ember.” I am not implying that Cronin borrowed from these works only that he used elements found in all of them. And, since I’m a huge fan of every one of those works it goes without saying that I’d rate this high. And I have.

I heard the other day that this book was the first in a trilogy. One can only hope that Cronin types 5,000 words a minute and that the other two books will be published before the end of the month. I know, he doesn’t and they won’t, but one can wish. I can’t wait to find out what happens next. After a brief Google search it appears that the next two books in the series are “The Twelve” to be published in 2012 and “The City of Mirrors” to be published in 2014. There is also talk of a full-length motion picture based on the novel. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that.

P.S. I love great, sprawling, epic novels. Here’s hoping volumes two and three are as lengthy and well written.

5 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

More on “The Passage”:

The Passage” Website (includes excerpts, videos, downloads and more)

Huffington Post Review

Laura Miller Book Review

Author’s Wikipedia Page

Book Review – Inverted World by Christopher Priest

Inverted World
Christopher Priest
NYRB Classics
Trade Paperback
336 pages
ISBN: 1590172698
Literary Awards - British Science Fiction Association Award for Novel (1975)


Once upon a time there was a great City known as Earth that constantly, slowly, and persistently moved ever-forward on rails towards its grinding goal to reach, or , at least, pace “Optimum.” Slowly, at a tenth of a mile a day, the City slouched northward toward the horizon. To fall behind was unthinkable and deadly or so the denizens had been taught. Behind this lumbering behemoth, the Traction Guild strained to remove the ties and rails and quickly transport them to the front of the City. The Navigator Guild would send scouts great distances to determine the best routes forward. Rivers, canyons, lakes, and other natural impediments were spanned by the Bridge Guild. Protecting them all from dissident villagers along the way was the Militia Guild. So begins the quirky story of “Inverted World” by Christopher Priest.

Normally, I would label my evaluation of “Inverted World” as a classic book review since this story was first published in 1974. However, and shame on me, I did not read this marvelous work of fiction until recently and therefore I cannot in good conscience label it a classic. However, had I read it twenty or thirty years ago I think I’d have deemed it an instant classic then. The characters are believable and well-written but trapped within the confines of their Guilds. Some search for answers while others, like the City, plod ever-onward without question or purpose. Strange “distortions” follow the City and those who travel too far behind it suffer physical and temporal changes to themselves and their surroundings. The mystery of how this “world” came to be unravels slowly but expertly in Priest’s hands. The main premise of the book consists of pure hard science and while the laws of physics appear to be strained at first, all is explained in the end. And, in my opinion, the wait is definitely worth it. The mysteries of the planet and the city are skillfully, although slowly, unraveled throughout the narrative and kept me interested until the very last page. If there is a flaw with this story it is that it is much too short and the open ending might have been expanded to full closure (which I won’t spoil here with explanation.)

Written with compact and concise detail this too short novel drew me in from the very first paragraph and the themes of respect, responsibility, parity, warped realism, and discovery were woven together in such a way that kept me totally engrossed and my imagination working in hyper-drive. Overall I became lost in the story and its enormous sense of wonder, buildup of mystery, and ever-present suspense as Priest’s portrayal of this interesting society grew. Ah, to become lost in wonder while reading… isn’t that all we ever ask from any intelligent book?

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative

Southeast Wisconsin

More information about Inverted World

Steven Wu’s Book Review

Fantasy Magazine’s Review

NPR Review (with excerpt)

Author Website

Friday, August 06, 2010

Book Review - The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

The Reapers are the Angels
Alden Bell
(Advance Readers Copy)
Holt Paperbacks 2010
Trade Paperback
240 pages

In light of the wealth of post-apocalyptic stories like The Book of Eli, The Road, and The Passage, now filling book shelves and movie theatres all across America “The Reapers Are the Angels” by Alden Bell turned out to be both a pleasant surprise and a real treat to read and in some ways is better than the others I’ve mentioned above. I had never heard of this book or the author before so had no preconceived notions concerning any hype or advertising that might be attached. I delved into it without pause and found that I literally could not put it down. Perhaps its my penchant towards post-apocalyptic fiction (you’ll notice I used the word “wealth” above for good reason) which goes back to my early readings of book like Deus Irae, A Canticle For Liebowitz, and Dahlgren. So, I knew I had to read this as soon as it appeared in the mailbox.

And I did, and was quite pleased to find what I believe might one of the year’s best sub-genre releases. Remarkably, Reapers fits snuggly into the mold set by the Science Fiction classics mentioned earlier. The character development is extraordinary, the antagonist(s) (and yes there are more than one), and the main characters, and even the zombies, known as meatsacks, are believable and well-written. One character, and I won’t spoil the story here, gets into an almost impossible situation. Later in the story he appears again with no explanation given of his escape. One wonders if another book set in the same universe from this particular characters’ POV isn’t in the making. I’d pay to read that one, too.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

More on “The Reapers Are the Angels”

AV Club Review

Goodreads Review

Blog Review

Graemes Fantasy Book Review

Author’s Website

Alden Bell is a pseudonym for Joshua Gaylord, whose first novel, Hummingbirds, was released in Fall '09. He teaches in a New York City prep school and is an adjunct professor at The New School. He lives in New York City with his wife, the Edgar-award-winning mystery writer, Megan Abbott.

Praise for Joshua Gaylord’s HUMMINGBIRDS:
“Hummingbirds is a sly, charming novel about the students at a Manhattan girls' school and the adults who sometimes remember to teach them. Those of us who love Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will now have to make room next to it on our shelves for Joshua Gaylord's inning debut.”
— Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England