The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s latest novel, The Twelve, is a sequel to his successful vampire fest The Passage, a book which succeeded in making vampires a scary proposition again as opposed to someone who would make a reliable eternal  life partner. Like its predecessor, The Twelve uses genre tropes from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror mixing them up with a literary sensibility to tell a story which moves between two time periods.

The first is the present day or thereabouts where we see the build up to and immediate aftermath of an epidemic which mutates its victims into “virals”, blood thirsty vampires. In this section we encounter some new characters and observe their attempts to survive the prevailing chaos. The second time period depicted takes place in a post-apocalyptic USA ninety-three years later. The post-apocalyptic time period depicts the fates of the survivors from the California colony, who were the focus of the first novel. We see their lives a few years after the action in The Passage and the consequences of their experiences. Drawn together again by fatalistic circumstances the characters converge to take on the head vampires, the twelve of the title, in order to rid the USA of the plague which afflicts it.

When reading The Passage I found both time periods to be of equal interest, sadly this wasn’t my experience with The Twelve. While the sections set in the present day kept me enthralled I cannot say the same for post-apocalyptic setting. My reasons for this lie in the lack of any sense of real peril created by the “virals” in the future time period.  The characters from the present day are confused and vulnerable which confers them with an aura of imminent mortality. With their survival at stake the reader genuinely feels a vicarious tension when they are in dangerous situations. This is lost in the post-apocalyptic sections due the characters capabilities in dispatching “virals”. Having survived the experiences of The Passage, these grizzled veterans never seem overwhelmed by what they encounter. The effect of this limits the tension, diminishing the horror aspects of the novel. This flaw is compounded further by a few characters having developed super powers since we last saw them.

Cronin seems have a preference for depicting the world in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. His prose describing the surroundings of the present day is, perhaps inevitably, more vivid than that used to describe the future setting.The most frustrating parts of the novel were what I shall loosely term the ‘metaphysical’ aspects of the novel. Much page space is given over to unsatisfying encounters between characters in an undefined realm which seems to be some sort of mix between a dreamlike state and an afterlife.

These ill-defined mumbo jumbo scenes add nothing to the story, and seem to exist merely to resolve plot points with a deus ex machina where the writer can’t be bothered with detailed plotting.  The worst example of this may be found in the closing chapters where the characters hatch a convincing plan, which would be exciting to read if carried out, only for it to be derailed by one of these silly metaphysical interventions. It seems the characters in the novel had a better idea for how the novel should end than their author who actually wrote it.

On the plus side Cronin does manage to introduce a few worthwhile new villains. The best of these is Lila, an unfortunate expectant mother in the present day time period who will become a deluded monster. Unfortunately this character is squandered undergoing a tedious redemption which left me feeling a little short-changed. The novel suffers from the author’s determination to give characters a happy ending, a facet which didn’t seem so pervasive in the first novel.

While The Twelve had entertaining moments overall I felt disappointed with it, especially as I had enjoyed its predecessor so much.  On the basis of the first book I am willing to be charitable and suggest that this book, the second part of a trilogy is suffering a fate common to second novels in cycles of three, where its own story is sacrificed due to its role in continuing from the previous story while setting up its own sequel. Such demands can limit the scope of the bridging texts robbing them of the freshness of the first book and the finality of the third. Hopefully this is the case with The Twelve and its follow-up, City Of Mirrors, scheduled for a 2014 release will deliver an experience closer in spirit to that of The Passage.

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