Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Passage, the book which precedes The Twelve, had more fanfare attached to its release than any non-JK Rowling book I've seen. Waterstones not only had huge piles of it at the front of their shop in Reading, they also produced a free booklet including the opening chapter and heaps of positive reviews. I was persuaded to purchase it, and loved the book so much it leaped to the top of my all-time favourites list.  Needless to say, I was keenly anticipating the sequel.

Of course, sequels have a tendency to struggle, not least when they are the second book in a planned trilogy, as is the case here. The Passage ultimately ends with the death of Babcock, the first of the Twelve - my worry here was that this follow-up could only repeat the same story as its predecessor over and over and over, or would have to sacrifice the sense of difficulty which made that first triumph so sweet. Refreshingly, Cronin takes the decision to go in a very different direction - I believe I read somewhere that Cronin compared the first novel to a travel book, and the second to a spy thriller, and the distinction in tone is clear.

That being said, the opening takes us right back to The Passage, in more ways than one. The first chapter is a godsend to those who haven't re-read the former novel in a while, as it recounts the events to date in a quasi-biblical fashion. This tantalising hint at the far-future is one of many tantalising strands you hope will be explained by the end of the series. From here we plunge back into 'Year Zero', when the 'virals' are rampaging across America. The Passage made a habit of investing in characters and then abandoning them - here we abandon our entire cast to pick up a whole new cast, although connections slowly become apparent. The sense of fear builds slowly, but the cumulative effect is still chilling.

Before long (although not without a horrifying detour in the chapter entitled 'The Field', which could easily be a chilling standalone horror story) we jump back to shortly after the events of the first novel, where Alicia, Peter, Amy and co are hunting down the remainder of The Twelve with little success. The story takes a long while to properly get going, as Cronin indulges his talent for characterization, and also shows us something of the post-apocalyptic society which has sprung up in Texas. This slow rising arc is compelling, but is slightly too choppy - the first book was at its emotive best when it developed the relationships between Amy and Wolgast and between Peter and Alicia, and while those connections are still present, they don't really move on from where we last saw them.

Not to give too much away, but I found the ending to be a disappointment. Whereas the first novel constantly reinvented itself, this sequel loses its breadth as it heads towards an underwhelming finale, and the irritating habit of implying catastrophe is absolutely inevitable at the end of a chapter, before inexplicably averting it at the beginning of the next, is the worst carry-over from the first novel. There is a wonderfully detailed world in the novel which almost always makes seamless sense - it's a shame that on occasion Cronin seems desperate to throw in unexplained exceptions - again this could be rescued by the final installment.

And it is towards that finale that this book inevitable points. The ending took me by surprise in its scope, but also sets up the challenge of the concluding episode, currently titled The City of Mirrors - an intruiging title given the brilliant spin on the traditional trope of Vampires and mirrors which Cronin creates. Hopefully the impetus of a grand finale will assist episode three in precisely the same way that the lurching quality of a middle episode hinders this book. It remains though very readable, and a more than adequate follow-up to The Passage.

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