Friday, 20 July 2012

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

This is a book I have been waiting for for the last two years. The publication date was put back and put back, and put back again - and then an early reading copy landed on my desk (well, after a begging phone call to the very nice publisher, Orion). Was it worth the wait? Oh yes.

The PassageThe Passage
The Twelve is part two of the story that Justin Cronin began in The Passage, one of the most incredible books I have ever read. The premise may sound old-hat, but the execution is fresh and original, and makes for truly compulsive reading.

A new virus has been stumbled upon in a remote forest, a virus which changes its host into a vampire-like creature. In a typical human response, the virus is sampled and studied and manipulated - and then injected into humans for experiment. A group of criminals on death row are on the receiving end; they are the first virals, no longer quite human. All of this we learn in the first quarter of the book, along with other things - the build-up to apocalypse, the event itself and how it comes to be, and those who are caught in the middle of it, both willingly and unwillingly. But then the story jumps, leaping forward almost one hundred years, to a survival colony.

The colony knows very little. They have their survival methods, ways of protecting themselves from the virals that pound at the gates when the sun goes down, and for the most part they get by, but they know they are on limited time and their power source is failing, and this is when Amy appears. To all appearances she is a fifteen year old girl who steps out of the desert one day as if from a mirage. The colonists cannot believe it. How has she survived on her own? Where did she come from? But the reader knows there is more to Amy than meets the eye: for she was there at the beginning, she was there when the viral scourge began a hundred years ago. She is traumatised, silent, but slowly she comes back to herself, and a small group from the colony set out with her to try and uncover their past and her past, and to find out if anyone else survives.

The Passage is written as an amalgamation of disparate stories which, at first, don’t seem to have much in common, but as time and reading goes by, they gradually link together into one immense and breathtaking experience. It's an adventure of epic proportions. Extremely well written and cleverly put together, the story barely lets up for even one minute. By the time I reached the end, my brain was almost fried by the immensity of the storyline - and then, just when it seemed like everything was pretty much concluded, Cronin throws in a nice little cliff hanger for book two.

The Twelve
The Twelve
For anyone who hasn’t read The Passage, ‘The Twelve’ refers to the apocalypse’s viral fathers: the twelve criminals who were experimented on at the start of the story, and changed, and then broke free to wreak their havoc upon the world, spreading the viral disease that makes vampires of men. The Twelve are the key to ending the scourge, the key to releasing the survivors from their terror.

As a book, The Twelve was very surprising, and not what I expected. It simultaneously continues the story begun in The Passage whilst creating a whole new story of its own. It's difficult to describe the storyline itself without giving too much away: Cronin has pieced The Twelve together in a similar, disparate way as he did The Passage, beginning with a set of individual, seemingly unconnected storylines which gradually coalesce into one, culminating in one grand event. To tell the story, I would have to begin with in the middle, and ruin the surprise.

The best I can do is this: The Twelve is a whole new aspect of the tale. From page one, it defied my expectations by not beginning where The Passage left off. There is a clever introduction, written as if it is Biblical text, that summarises the events of book one, but then the story goes back almost to the beginning, back to the time of the apocalypse itself, introducing a new set of characters. A little further in and the old characters pop up, but for them time has moved on, they have all grown up a little and lived a little more. They have fallen into lives and routines outside of the colony and outside of their journey undertaken in book one, but those lives are about to get shaken up all over again. I never imagined the story would go in the direction it takes, and that is a good thing: because I would never have imagined something as interesting as this.

The Twelve is similar and yet different to The Passage. It is extremely good, but it is not quite as good as The Passage. It is less journey-based, and thus has a different feel to it, and there was one storyline that I just didn’t 'get'. Whilst that one small thread did have an important role to play in the denouement, my ‘not quite following it’ didn’t take away from the face-down. Said face-down was also slightly more confused than the one at the end of book one - not quite as dramatic or revealing, perhaps, but fairly satisfactory. Ultimately, though, these are two very small things that can easily be forgotten amidst the awesomeness of the book as a whole - they only seem like an issue when compared to the perfection of The Passage.

I am left intrigued for book three, and looking forward to seeing where Mr. Cronin takes the story next. One of the things I have been thinking about most since finishing The Twelve is whether - or how - the rest of the world has been affected. Whilst reading The Passage, I simply assumed that the apocalypse had extended its fingers around the world, but after reading The Twelve I find myself wondering whether this is actually the case. Have the virals been limited to the American continent? If so, what has been going on in the rest of the world since? Even if they instituted a quarantine on the States, would they not have been able to see the survival colonies from satellites? And if so, why would they not help?

Mr. Cronin, I really hope you don’t make me wait too long for the next installment. Or, at the very least, no longer than the the two years I have waited for this one. Please?

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