The Twelve by Justin Cronin – review by Andrew Kliem

14bCroninThe Passage was one of the huge dark fiction success stories of 2010. Written by Rice University professor and author Justin Cronin, the manuscript ignited a bidding war before even being completed, resulting in a $3.5 million advance and a further $1.5 million for the film rights. In the publisher speak, that means they’re planning for it to be kind of a big deal. Thankfully it lived up to their expectations, climbing the New York Times best seller list and earning praise from such horror luminaries as Stephen King.

Now two years later, the sequel is upon us. The Twelve continues the story of a world in rapid and rather bloody decline, and for the most part it’s a worthy successor to The Passage. It moves at the same rapid fire pace, is written in the same elegant prose, and evokes the same sense of creeping dread. Unfortunately however, the niggling problems from the first story also return, including the frequent point of view switches and the sometimes ethereal plot devices, meaning if the first book wasn’t your thing then this one is unlikely to change your mind.

For those unfamiliar with the series, it is basically a post apocalyptic tale told on an epic scale. Think The Stand, but with genetically engineered vampires. Twelve death row inmates are infected with a potent new virus in a government super soldier program, and as so often seems to happen when bio-weapons are involved, things get a little out of control.

Rather than following directly on from the events of the first novel, The Twelve starts by taking us back to the beginning of the outbreak and introducing us to a group of new characters who will play key roles later in the story. It then proceeds to jump back and forward both in time and perspective, between these new players and those left at the end of the first book. Initially I found this rather jarring. There are a lot of narratives to keep track of and it can be confusing ordering everything correctly given the constant changes in time period. But as you make it further in, the story begins to take shape and all those disjointed threads gradually pull together.

Because new introductions are required, the book doesn’t burst out of the gates at the very beginning like many other sequels, but by the middle it starts picking up steam and then it never really stops, culminating in one of the more intricate and epic climaxes I’ve read recently. The writing also aids the sense of pace, striking a good balance between tight, punchy prose and delicate description.

With so many perspective shifts, no character really gets more page time than any other, so picking a single protagonist is difficult, but the person who ties everything together is a girl named Amy — the central character of the first story. Infected with a modified version of the vampire virus, she is seemingly immortal and it is really her quest that the other characters get pulled into. In The Passage, she was chasing Babcock, the first of the infected. Now she is on the hunt for the rest of the titular Twelve.

The plot has too many strands to really elaborate on here, but suffice to say there is plenty of tension, action and a surprising number of poignant moments. The vampires (or Virals as they are called) are also noteworthy. In the age of undead creatures who glitter in the sun, it’s nice to occasionally be reminded that vampires used to be rather terrifying. The Virals in The Twelve are more animal than man; leaping, powerful, blood hungry creatures that are virtually unstoppable for regular humans. They prefer decapitation and dismemberment to brooding conversation, which should have horror fans jumping for joy.

My one big criticism — and this was a problem I had with The Passage too — is that the book occasionally ventures into mystical territory. Conversations take place involving characters who are long dead, and there are a handful of events that happen for rather intangible reasons. This is loosely explained in the context of the story, but I can’t help feeling that it would have been a stronger book without these elements.

While this took away from my enjoyment a little, ultimately The Twelve was still an entertaining read. It treads that thin line between blockbuster genre fiction and quality writing and does so with aplomb. If you dug The Passage or just like a bit of post apocalyptic mayhem every now and again, you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

- Review by Andrew Kliem.

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