Spoilers for The Passage will necessarily follow, but really, you should not be reading The Twelve if you don’t already know The Passage. We’re about to go crazy in-depth with The Twelve. The Worm just dug the first book too much not to hold this novel to a ridiculously high standard. That said, here we go…
Brilliant Exposition: So, the genius continues to blast straight from Justin Cronin’s glowing synapses right onto the opening pages of The Twelve. How to rehash exposition from an epic book one? Cronin knows how. With a booming self importance that borders on egomaniacal. Yet he pulls it off because… well, to quote Ms. Beyonce… he can back it up. At least in the opening pages and a few of the subsequent scenes. To spoil the exposition and it’s style would be to criminally rob you of experiencing it for yourself so suffice it to say – Cronin rocks the recap. Only, after reading the whole novel, I now see that terrific start as Cronin taking a bow for the greatness of The Passage. It really oversells the importance and gravitas of The Twelve, though.
In The Beginning: The early going in The Twelve takes us back to the first days after the apocalypse. Cronin employs the same technique and narrative structure he used in the first book. We start off in the immediate aftermath of the viral outbreak – sort of examining what was going on with tangential characters from The Passage. (For example, we follow Wolgast’s wife, Lila, and also a couple of the sweepers and military personell from The Chalet.) The action has the same immediacy we have come to expect from Cronin. In fact, there are some pretty fantastic set-pieces and wonderful character development. The Ferrari escape and Danny the simpleton bus driver for example. There is even some question as to who characters are and what they are about. But (and this distinction is important) we get answers to those brief mysteries quickly and the action continues… until it suddenly doesn’t and we abruptly time shift as we did in The Passage.
The Middle: So we jump to our familiar future and join up with our epic heroes (Peter, Michael, Alicia, Amy) who continue their journey about five years after the events of The Passage. This is where the pacing of the novel begins to bog down for The Worm. In the first book the time shift was jarring but Cronin fed us enough action and intrigue to build interest in the new characters. But in The Twelve there just is not a whole lot going on during most of the book. I was half way through the novel when I realized all the main characters were still only briefly touching base with each other and floundering about on their own. There is an attempt to create a sort of pre-ordained “drawing together” of key figures, but frankly it takes way too long. The Twelve is excruciatingly lackadaisical in its assembling of our heroes. With the exception of Alicia and Peter going on an ill-fated expedition into some caves, there are barely any virals in the first half of the book. No virals! What The Twelve does have, though, is a whole lot of biblical evangelizing. What had been an allegorical and amorphous spirituality in The Passage becomes a more strident presence in The Twelve. Is Cronin trying to force an ideology on us or is he just spelling it out because he didn’t trust his readers to “get” what he’d been saying in The Passage? Dunno’. But the book has so many more egregious issues that I don’t have time to figure this element out.
With The Twelve, our heroes really don’t have anything to do and that is just the hard truth. Cronin can write the hell out of scene, there is no question about that, but he’s got these gorgeously described scenes and nothing happening in them. There is a lot of traveling and meeting up with old friends for brief acknowledgements and backslapping. Naturally, a lot that needs to be said between characters just isn’t. They constantly keep information to themselves (and from the readers). I realize Cronin was building to a mystery and was waiting for all the pieces to be assembled before his reveal… but come on. You have to give us more to follow than just characters playing “I have a secret” for hundreds of pages. Every single character seems to be aware of their own importance in the “grand scheme” but large swaths of the novel just seem to follow them around while they become more and more convinced of their specialness – without doing a god damned thing! I guess what I’m saying is The Twelve became too internal and what was in there wasn’t particularly interesting or new. Where is the danger? The excitement? Hell, the fun even? Remember when there were viral attacks, countdowns, and political squabbles? A lot of this book makes the days on Maggie’s Farm seem simply raucous. (Sorry, that bit is for Walking Dead fans only.)
Okay, so the middle section of The Twelve was kinda’ dull… Cronin has given us so much awesome that he deserves a little bit of pass. The Passage is a pretty tough act to follow. And, within a trilogy, book two is the middle act so it doesn’t get the novelty of an origin story, nor the thrill of a climax. Yet, the middle act is also where the character building is supposed to happen, right? Well, characters are addressed here, but I don’t know how much building happens. Sadly, Cronin falls back on the biggest weakness from The Passage… namely too many characters. In the first book, I wasn’t able to really zero in on any of the important ones until the others started dropping like flies before the glowing bug zapper that was the viral horde. Now, in The Twelve, Cronin has descendants of those same characers popping in and out of the narrative mostly to provide incredibly convenient assistance or information when it is needed by our wandering heroes. Really, Cronin has taken our spirtual postapocalyptic thriller and turned it into a World War II spy/rebellion story. Which could actually be cool if he could pull it off, but it feels like the narrative gets away from him. His characters (with the exception of Wolgast, Babcock, Carter, and maybe Amy) were never particularly complex to begin with. And here it seems we are supposed to be so invested the inner workings of all the newer characters that we could appreciate their covert movements. Sadly, I was not and did not. The Passage did not win readers over by being shadowy and mysterious. Mystery is fine in it’s place, but this world and these arch-typical characters can’t really pull it off. The story suffers for taking it’s mysteries too seriously. I’m reminded a little of the scowling Michonne from the Walking Dead television series. Skulking, brooding characters loose their impact if that is all they do. Cool can very easily become boring. With The Twelve, Cronin has his characters in their own heads so much that they become frustratingly one-note. The whole problem could just be a logistical one… he separated many of his actors for so long it became difficult to get into rhythm with any of them. Or it could be that Cronin’s key distinctions between characters fall into two easily (for him) defined camps. You have men and you have women. And here is where we get into real trouble. Ready?
If a character’s name is Michael or Peter or Hollis or Enrique (or Bob, or Joe, or Brett: you get where I’m going)… then no real motivation or differentiation is needed. He is man. He is important and doing secretive manly things that involve plans and logistics and weapons. If your name is Shawna or Lila or Amy or Alicia or Sara or Lore, etc. you are woman and you are defined 1) by your relationship to sex and/or 2) your success or failure to breed and mother. Without exception every SINGLE female character in this novel is judged by these standards or at least has these issues imposed upon them. And not just by the author, who chose to give them these motivations, but by the men in the novel who, for good or ill, render final judgment on the women in the extreme.
I have respect for Cronin because his first book, The Passage, was amazing. But what in the hell happened with The Twelve? It is a long novel full of set pieces that are twisted versions of a damsel tied to the railroad tracks waiting for her man to save her. Throw in a whole heaping helping of “Where are my babies? I want a baby. Are you my mother? Can I be your Mama? Protect my baby!” Then toss in a dash of violence, rape and prostitution – and you’ve got yourself a novel, if you’re into that sort of thing.
This book is far more darkly sexual than some readers may anticipate. To avoid spoilers, I will say only that a horrific scene occurs late in the novel that damn near had me giving up on the whole series. It was gratuitous, violent, and absolutely without question torture porn. It was also a wholly unnecessary addition to a scene that did not require any extra violence. The whole tenor of The Twelve is difficult and maybe revels a bit too much in the psychological, physical, and emotional destruction of the female characters. More on that, sadly, in a bit.
The End: As our heroes start to form up into teams, toward the climax of the novel, the pace does pick up and an effort is made to perk up the action. The problem is, what were brilliant re-imaginings of familiar tropes in The Passage, became merely cliche in The Twelve. Without giving too much away, Peter is introduced to a rather Thunderdome-like practice near the three-quarters mark in the novel. His response is wildly predictable, unnecessary, and juvenile. I’d expected much better from Cronin and the character of Peter. Juvenile and unnecessary can be fun – in a certain type of novel – but this isn’t that type. The macho chest-thumping blood lust just felt out of character for Peter and beneath Cronin’s incredible talents. But he does get things back on track for a while and the plot moves along nicely as our chess pieces form up on the board. The final action sequence is nicely choreographed and has some fun visual elements. High marks for that, and for the sensitive and nicely nuanced dream sequence in the end.
Of course most of our heroes live to fight another day (it is no secret this is a trilogy). Yeay! We defeat the horde, sorta’, and all the good girls get paired off to have babies and make families. Wait, what??? This, aparently, is their reward for surviving. Cronin goes to such great lengths to pair everybody up, Noah’s ark style, that there is one particular couple that is so ridiculously shallow (by that I mean, he has a penis and she, a vagina) I laughed at it. Actual laughter. I suppose maybe Cronin didn’t know how else to reward these characters for their loyal service to the cause so he gave them to each other. Hilarious. He just can’t help himself. I guess that is the most any of us can ask for, right? (There is one female character whom Cronin has never described as particularly sexual or nurturing. Life is pretty rough for that one. In fact it is brutally rough.)
All that being said, believe it or not, the final scenes in The Twelve are nicely structured and satisfying. But it is a hauntingly familiar recall to the conclusion of The Passage. In fact, on almost a beat-by-beat level (if you take out the rambling bits in the middle), The Twelve is essentially The Passage 2.0. This isn’t a bad thing, as The Passage was phenomenal, but I kind of expected something new and not so creepy from The Twelve.
The Worm Stirs the Shit: So let’s talk about the creep-out factor. The Worm is just going to say this and let it be what it is. (Deep breath.) There are some rather disturbing emotional/sexual situations in The Twelve. I’m not talking about disturbing in the sense that they are supposed to shock or repel. I’m saying in plain English that Cronin includes some extremely questionable relationships and writes them lovingly. There is the sexual liason between the teenager and the thirty-year old that is written as if it is a moving and life-affirming experience for both parties. (I will admit that there is line in the dialogue about the girl having just turned eighteen. It felt completely out of tempo with the rest of the conversation and reeked of an editorial note. But it is a cop-out line nonetheless because she had been described as a high schooler for pages and pages. Also, it is unclear whether the man in the relationship even believes her age or cares. And Cronin kept describing her as having some sort of mature aura that exceeded her years. Rationalize much? Gross.)
Which leads us directly to the Amy figure. You knew we were going to have to get to it. It was oh-so-barely hinted at in The Passage, but went down a bit easier because it was somewhat sweet – or could safely be interpreted that way. You know what I’m talking about… the kiss that Amy gave Peter in the mall rescue scene from The Passage. When she was physically about eight years old. So here’s the thing, despite all that these characters have been through since – Peter has never forgotten that kiss. Neither has Amy apparently. Gross, again. Here is yet another young female character always described as mature for her years, with a soul much wiser than her child’s body. Alright, at LEAST with this character you can buy that because she is over a hundred years old. (Interview with A Vampire, anybody?) But here is my ultimate problem with the Amy/Peter relationship… she has the body of a pre-teen in The Twelve. He is a grown man who, it is seems, is largely celibate. He is emotionally connected to an actual woman (Alicia) that he can’t have because she isn’t really about the mothering, homesteading thing. Then we jump to scenes with Amy who, I’m guessing, is another “woman” he can’t have. I can’t really explain it better than that. The whole relationship is just coated in an icky film and it is particularly tough to take because it is sold in such a matter-of fact way. Oh, and Amy is going through something mystical that is (maybe) her menses right when Peter comes to visit her and they get to reminiscing about the kiss. Eww. Add that to the increasingly religious proselytizing in The Twelve and a picture is forming unbidden – that of fringe cults and child wives.
Then there is the one other striking bit of sexuality in The Twelve, and it centers on Michael. The Worm had gotten through half of this projected trilogy without sex ever really been a particularly large part of the story. Then we are treated to Michael getting it on with a woman who is depicted as sexually rapacious and insatiable. She wants Michael and even loves him, despite his not reciprocating her feelings. He even enjoys the frat boy attention he gets for his sexual escapades, but clearly has no respect or true feeling for her beyond a mild affinity. She is described as not being particularly attractive and rather masculine. And she also flirts with Peter to get closer to Michael’s heart. My question is … why? Why is she in the novel? Why is Michael with her? WTF is the point? Her entire motivation for taking incredible risks throughout the novel seems to be her blind devotion to this man who has, at best, lukewarm feelings for her. Pathetic.
For the record: I am not accusing Cronin of having wacky religious beliefs or trying to insinuate the same into mainstream culture. That would be a massive stretch of the imagination and, frankly, I don’t know a darn thing about Cronin or his beliefs. The Worm is all about the novel and how it reads. It is entirely possible nobody else will get the same creep-out vibe I got. It is also possible that Cronin never intended the message in the first place and would laugh to see my bizarre reading of his novel. I am fully aware that things get lost in translation; that not every idea is transmitted in a pristine form; that editors will have their say. Just be warned: there are more psychosexual dynamics at play in this book than were ever hinted at in The Passage.
Speaking of psychosexual… how about the role of sweepers in both The Passage and The Twelve? Remember them? Custodial staff recruited exclusively from the ranks of the chemically castrated sex offenders? Now we get to follow one of them, post apocalypse. And I really liked Lawrence Grey. I thought it was sort of awkwardly sweet how he had his chance at redemption early in the novel. But within the larger context of the sexual metaphores in The Twelve, I am forced to look askance at even this storyline. We have a chemically castrated sex offender (molester of little boys) who now is infected by virals and possibly rejecting his chemical alteration. He is paired up with a pregnant woman whom he takes under his care and protection. He essentially becomes a father figure but the dynamic, as imposed by the woman with her childish behavior, forces him into more of a husband’s role. The inclusion of that aspect of the story feels maybe, a tiny bit, possibly… like Cronin labeled Grey despicable (child molester) and then suggested that once infected he could reject that part of himself, and by absorbing a heterosexual relationship (minus the sex?) he is reborn a hero. I don’t know. I would have to spend whopping amounts of time trying to extract just WTF any of that might mean. There is a whiff of programming/deprogramming and realignment of sexual identity that has a potentially darker underpinning. But what the hell, its just a fun fantasy book, right? I’m probably making too much over too little. The random trannies included in the book were likely just for local, seedy color. Right? Eh. Just how The Worm turns sometimes!
Viral Conceit: I’m always fascinated by the way authors build worlds and set a tone. And then I get to watch them party in a world of their making. I mean – they get to create it ALL but the flip side is, I believe, that they have to live with their creations and characters. By using a virus as a founding factor in his novel, Cronin has given himself a perfectly genius cheat. He gets to shift or ‘mutate’ the virus endlessly. There are different strains and different reactions in different individuals. This gives him an easy way to tweak the good guys, the bad guys, the message, and the metaphor. But it also provides an all-too-tempting narrative way out; a convenient resolution to any literarily sticky situations he may write himself into. It feels too contrived and easy to use the evolution of the mutation for narrative twists. Instead of character agency and motivation driving the “oh shit” moments of the book… or even giving us solid emotional investment in the mysteries they are following… sudden, inexplicable ‘changes’ in characters (good and bad) seem like half-hearted efforts to inject dread and additional sci fi elements where they are not needed. Example: Alicia’s character is isolated through nearly all of the book. Not a lot of interaction going on, so we throw in some unexplained changes in her mutation. Now she has something to think about and we can maybe add to the lore and mystery of the virals themselves. But it was too convenient and not nearly enough payoff for having to follow her on deer hunts and horse rides over bridges. Same with Amy. She isn’t really doing anything at all and is stuck, basically, in a convent. So let’s show how her body starts changing, too. I’m not saying there isn’t a point to these mutations within the narrative of this book. It’s just that in the larger mythology it feels like a convenient, standby plot-mover.
As a Stand-Alone: This is not, I repeat NOT one of those books in a series that can be read as a stand alone. Even with Cronin’s clever recapping in the opening pages, there is just no way anyone would realistically be able to follow the narrative of The Twelve without having first read The Passage. The recap is more a geekgasm and reminder for readers of the first book. Also, Cronin seems to be relying on the fact that you have already met his characters. They do not really get heroic re-introductions. As I said in the above; there are a lot of knowing grunts and nods between characters as they encounter each other. You either know their history or you don’t. I would imagine many fresh readers would be at a loss to explain what Amy or Alicia’s “otherness” is all about, so don’t even try.
Final Word: It just wasn’t good. In fact, it was disturbing. Women are portrayed in a seriously limited and stereotypical way – if you pulled your stereotypes from the 1930′s. There is a whole lot of wandering around in beautifully written landscapes and environments, but not much action. No virals, no passion, a choppy dropping of storylines, a retread of the narrative from book one and no further character development at all.
The Amy/Wolgast stuff was good, though. See, mom, I can be positive. Worm Out!