The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books; 592 pages; $28).
In 2010, Justin Cronin set the book world on fire with his bestselling blockbuster The Passage, in which a secret government experiment went horribly awry. Cronin imagined a post-apocalyptic landscape so alien and frightening that it gave readers good reason to keep their lights on. Critics were enthralled, too, and compared Cronin to Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Horror was not even Cronin’s forte; before the release of The Passage, Cronin was best known for writing Mary and O’Neil, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize.
The Passage introduced readers to a little girl named Amy, “the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years.” Amy, Peter, and Alicia waged war against the virals.
Amy, Peter, and Alicia are all back in The Twelve but lack the spark that made them so intriguing and multi-dimensional in the first book. They cannot carry this story. Not even Amy can save The Twelve.
The Twelve does not pick up where The Passage ended. Cronin takes readers back to Year Zero, a tactic that will frustrate most. He wants us to see a new window into the aftermath of the virus that decimated much of humanity and destroyed civilization. Before long, I was mesmerized by the new characters Cronin introduces, especially Lila, a pregnant woman who blocks out the end of the world happening around her.
Cronin’s strongest new characters, though, are three very different men: Kittridge, Danny, and Guilder.
Kittridge, or “Last Stand in Denver,” is a survivalist holed up in a high-rise. He shot 7 virals the first night he was there. “It was the last one that made him famous. The creature, or vampire, or whatever it was—the official term was ‘Infected Person’—had looked straight into the lens just before Kittridge put one through the sweet spot.” In a nod to the times in which Cronin sets Year Zero, our times, the video was uploaded to YouTube. The picture “had traveled around the globe within hours; by morning all the major networks had picked it up.” People were curious about Kittridge: “Who is this man? Everyone wanted to know. Who is this fearless-crazy-suicidal man, barricaded in a Denver high-rise, making his last stand?”
Meanwhile, Danny, an autistic bus driver, is home with his mother’s dead body. All alone with no electricity, a stinking corpse, and sour milk, Danny is terrified. But he feels a kinship with the kids he drives to school. He worries about them and is determined to see if they are all right. Maybe Danny will find other survivors and news about what is going on. “Because maybe he wasn’t the only person still living. Because it gave him the happy-click, driving the bus. Because he didn’t know what else to do with himself, with Momma in the bedroom and the milk spoiled and all the days gone by.” Danny sets out in his school bus; he finds a changed world, but one in which he has a real place.
Guilder is the character you love to hate in The Twelve. He is the Deputy Director of Special Weapons who is desperate to get his hands on little Amy or another test subject who was given a very special virus. “And the virus was moving. Spreading in every direction, a twelve-fingered hand. By the time Homeland had sealed off the major interstate corridors…the horse was already galloping from the barn.” Through Guilder, we see the government collapsing. Cronin has Guilder make some tough decisions, making us empathize and sympathize with him.
Just when you get comfortable with new characters in the Year Zero, Cronin removes you from your comfort zone. This can be a good thing, but not in this case.
When Cronin advances the story 100 years into the future, the novel loses ground. The characters we got to know in The Passage, people we came to like, people we rooted for, fall flat in The Twelve. Five years have passed and each has undergone many changes, but I found their dialogue awkward. I could not get a feel for them this time around.
Furthermore, the alien world that Cronin illustrated so well and beautifully in The Passage is less alien here. There is nothing new or unique or strange about it; it is all too familiar. Instead of being awed by the eccentricity of the plot and setting as I was in The Passage, I found myself scrutinizing Cronin’s fondness of coincidences. Too much of what he wrote was improbable.
The one shining light in this part of the story takes place in Fort Powell, Iowa, where a demagogue feeds humans to virals. Cronin comes up with lots of surprises here. But, sadly, it’s too little too late.
Fans of The Passage have waited a long time for its sequel. Sadly, The Twelve is not worth the wait. New blood made the story compelling in parts and highly readable at times. However, the characters we came to love in The Passage come across as lackluster and even boring. Amy is no savior here.