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The Passage by Justin Cronin

The unusually breathless introduction by the Hachette publicist, combined with the trouble taken to set up a Facebook page (www.whoisamy.co.nz) made me rather suspect The Passage, the third book by American novelist Justin Cronin, might be not be just your everyday post-apocalyptic science-fiction fantasy doorstopper.

That hunch was borne out: the acknowledgements page of the 765-page tome features a nod to film director Ridley Scott (of Bladerunner, Gladiator and Robin Hood), who knows a good story when he sees one and has already snapped up the movie rights for a reported US$3.75 million.

Smart man. The Passage has ‘summer blockbuster’ written all over it, and what’s more, it is merely the first installment in a trilogy.

The opening sentences indicate the scale of Cronin’s ambition for his story: “Before she became the Girl from Nowhere, the One who Walked I, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years, she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.”

At the start of the book Amy, to all outward observations a normal, healthy six-year-old, is abandoned at a convent by her troubled mother. Taken first under the wing of a caring nun, then a grief-stricken FBI agent, she is present when a killer virus is inadvertently unleashed from a clandestine military facility in Colorado, turning 40 million people into vampirish ‘virals’ and leaving all but a handful of the remaining American populace dead.

The disease is part of a grand, top-secret experiment by the US government in which death-row inmates consent to be used as human guinea pigs in exchange for commutation of their sentence – not such a great deal, as it turns out.

Following the outbreak, after which Amy vanishes, Cronin introduces a group of survivors who wall themselves off in what is now the California Republic. A tight but necessarily merciless community of refugees from other parts of the country, they ward off the virals with high-octane lights and skilled combatants known as Watchers.

A breach of security, and the curious reappearance of Amy, only a handful of years older despite the passing of nine decades, drives them eastwards and into the sinister embrace of another group of survivors, who have developed quite a different way of defending themselves against gruesome annihilation.

The question of who else is out there, and whether it is worth taking the substantial risk associated with finding out, dominates the second half of the book. Can a post-apocalyptic world sustain any hope?

The Passage, an immensely brave and inventive novel that is justifiably earning Cronin comparison with the best work of Stephen King, spans a century after the release of the virus. This event occurs in a time not far from now; a world in which, perhaps fittingly, Jenna Bush is Governor of Texas.

The main story is interspersed with brief diary excerpts by some characters, which have been presented at the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period in the Indo-Australian Republic in April 1003 AV (after virus?).

The excerpts constitute the end of the story, but The Passage leaves us (and Amy) with 900 years to go – one can only hope that the rest of the tale proves as thrilling and transporting as the opening salvo.

This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

Published by Hachette