The Passage, by Justin Cronin, is one of those books that is less a book and more of an event. I first heard of it a year ago, when news of his sale broke. Cronin, an accomplished literary author, sold the rights to The Passage for $3.75 million, with a film deal to Ridley Scott for another $1.75 million, based on just the first 120 pages or so. So I've been waiting all this time, ever since, to see what kind of book is worth all that money.
The Passage is the story of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. In its quest to create a super-soldier, using a vampire virus, the U.S. government unwittingly unleashes the apocalypse. But this virus is different from other literary viruses: it's victims become vampires. They are fast, they are strong, and they are bloodthirsty. They don't just nibble at necks, and they don't moon around over teenage girls. These vampires tear people apart literally. At one point, a solider "experiences the sensation, utterly new to him, of being torn in half." As the virus spreads, a plague of bloodsuckers draining the continent of people, the world's hopes reside in a young girl named Amy, who is introduced in the first sentence as the Girl from Nowhere, the Girl who Lived a Thousand Years. Amy doesn't talk much, but she shares a bond with the vampires that confuses and confounds the few remaining survivors.
The first act of The Passage is nearly perfect. Cronin is a hell of a writer. He takes time with his characters; he builds them and we know them. The tension is palpable as we wait for the hammer to fall, because we know it must. His observations are razor sharp, and the book possesses a specificity of detail that is staggering. It's complete, thorough world-building—you literally go down the rabbit hole as the vampires take over.
After the virus, or AV, the survivors hole up in a walled compound known as the Colony where they light the night with powerful banks of lights to keep away the virals (or smokes or dracs). At this point, the narrative leaps forward almost a century, and every character we met in the first act is gone. Now the book's debt to its predecessors becomes more plain. We are treated to snippets of the familiar: the paranoid, fearful waiting of I Am Legend, the savagery of 28 Days Later, the mysticism of The Stand and hopelessness of The Road. Unfortunately, Cronin never establishes the same visceral connection with his new batch of survivors—except perhaps Alicia Donadio, who he obviously has great affection for. Nevertheless, the strength and ambition of the original idea propels the book relentlessly for hundreds of pages, so even if the characters themselves sometimes melt into their own narratives, the fact that the virals are out there in the night is never far away.