I consider myself very lucky that I discovered Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” series only last summer, so the wait for City of Mirrors was much less painful and dramatic than it would have been if I’d been reading in real time: The Passage was published in 2010 and The Twelve in 2012. City of Mirrors came out four weeks ago. That’s not on a George R. R. Martin level, but still could have been a brutal wait for me. Whew!
I love this series. I loved this final book. I wish there were more. But also, City of Mirrors really did close all of the loops for me, and gave me great satisfaction in an end.
I don’t want to get super spoilery, because there is so much joy in discovery and journey in these books. But I will try to lay it out in general, because this review is really an unabashed endorsement and a “please read these; you’ll love them!” If you don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now. I’m trying to be vague, but some things are unavoidable in doing the broad strokes.
Justin Cronin wrote these books with and for his daughter, who was very young at the time he started writing them. She started joining him on her bike during his morning runs, a time he had been accustomed to using for gathering his thoughts. So they brainstormed this book together, because she wanted a book about a “girl who saves the world.” I have a hard time believing that he let her read the first and maybe even the second book when they were published, because of the really graphic violence and general scary-ness. But I would like to imagine that now, a decade later, she has read and loved them. Though, as a teenager, she’s probably just super embarrassed.
“The Passage” series envisions a world in which the United States military loses control of a virus that it’s testing on death row inmates, with the intent to weaponize. The effects of this virus parallel those of vampirism (in The Passage, there’s a wonderful bit where a group of characters watches “Nosferatu” as a training video). Which is to say, these are vampire books with a science-y foundation. But mostly it’s a survival story. The series jumps back and forth over more than 1,000 years, from both the “BV” (before virus) and “AV” (after virus) periods, the new Year 0 being the year of the Great Catastrophe, when the infection annihilates the North American continent. Cronin owes a lot to The Stand (which of course I didn’t realize when I read the first two books), carefully unfolding the narrative from a myriad of perspectives, fully and beautifully fleshed-out characters whose lives are all intertwined in one way or another (there is even a journey into New York City – which is the titular “City of Mirrors” – that takes someone across the George Washington Bridge, a section which felt very much like light homage to the passage through the tunnel from The Stand). The bulk of the story follows the generation that lives between 60 AV and 130 AV, but at the heart of the story is always Amy, the Girl from Nowhere, who lives for the entire millennium.
I highlighted this section from City of Mirrors, and this really nutshells the hell of out of it for me, demonstrating Cronin’s beautiful style, and also his love for his characters. I should note that the voice of this section is that of the Big Bad, which is why it’s a little overwrought and dick-ish; he’s a total megalomaniac:
“A child is born into this world. She is lost, alone, in due course both befriended and betrayed. She is the carrier of a special burden, a singular vocation that is only hers to bear. She wanders in a wasteland, a ruin of grief and tormented dreams. She has no past, only a long, blank future; she is like a convict with an unknown sentence, never visited in the cell of her interminable imprisonment. Any other soul would be broken by this fate, and yet the child abides; she dares to hope that she is not alone. That is her mission, the role for which she has been cast at heaven’s cruel audition. She is hope’s last vessel on the earth.”
There is an inevitability to the story, but I still leaned in over and over again, trapped by the tension and action. It’s a cautionary tale, but also a story about lack of control, and fate. There is an epicness to the trilogy, and Cronin borrows overtly from other epics, most particularly The Iliad. There are obvious, clearly intentional parallels to the Old Testament, and magic and faith exist carefully in harmony with the believable hard science.
Magic and science are balanced perfectly in this series. Adventure and heart hold it together.