9 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Title: The Passage

Author: Justin Cronin

Genre: Horror, (Post-)Apocalyptic, Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Publisher: Ballatine (US) / Orion (UK)
Publication Date: June 2010 (US & UK)
Hardcover: 784 Pages

“It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.”

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

With The Passage, award-winning author Justin Cronin has written both a relentlessly suspenseful adventure and an epic chronicle of human endurance in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and unimaginable danger. Its inventive storytelling, masterful prose, and depth of human insight mark it as a crucial and transcendent work of modern fiction.

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned trilogy

How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher

Why did I read this book: You don’t have to search hard to find some sort of promotional material for Justin Cronin’s The Passage – down the street from my apartment, there’s an honest to goodness billboard with an advertisement for the book. At BookExpo America, banners were strewn willy-nilly across the Javits Center, and even press/attendee badges bore advertisements for the book. The Passage has come so highly rated by literary types and genre fiction types alike (hi-yo, Stephen King endorsement!), and given the synopsis of the book (a world overrun by a deadly vampire-like plague, a struggling group of humans fighting for survival in a ravaged post-apocalyptic America, and a girl-that-is-not-a-girl who could save them all)…well, this is has my name all over it. Thea-crack.


When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-raz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.

~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 68

So begins the The Passage – with a fittingly eerie, portent ode to the end of the world. The book begins with the story of a teenage mother, Jeanette, and her beloved daughter whom she names Amy Harper – for Harper Lee, the author of Jeanette’s favorite book. Though Jeanette loves her daughter more than anything else in the world, she finds herself in an impossible situation, and is forced to give young, solemn Amy up, leaving her with a convent of nuns. Sister Lacey immediately feels a connection to Amy, understanding that there is something different, something important, about the six-year old girl, and takes her in, deflecting the questions of the other nuns in the convent. Meanwhile, Doctor Jonas Lear continues his top secret medical research, borne of a dream to find a miraculous cure for mankind’s ailments, under the jurisdiction and protection of the U.S. Army. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is sent to procure the subjects of Dr. Lear’s human trials, twelve deathrow inmates whom Wolgast persuades to sign their lives away. But Wolgast’s final mission has his conscience ill at ease as he and his partner are sent to pick up one final test subject; a six year old girl, abandoned by her prostitute mother. A girl named Amy.

Lear’s research, the twelve variations of the Project NOAH virus, are unleashed on the world in a single night as security is breached and each of the inexplicable, ravenous test subjects escape. Infecting and multiplying, the Virals sweep the North American continent from coast to coast in a wave of blood, horror and death, their only vulnerability exposure to daylight. The survivors – what few survivors remain – band together in isolated fortresses, armed with weapons and shielding their settlements with bright lights from dusk till dawn. But many decades later, when the power stutters and batteries begin to fail in First Colony, its only a matter of time before the lights go out and all is lost. But when a strange young girl with the ability to keep the Virals at bay arrives at the Colony walls, the fate of those precious few human survivors holds a glimmer of hope in a world of endless death.

As I mentioned above, The Passage is one of the most hyped new releases (if not THE most hyped new release) of 2010. And, having been burned by hype this year countless times, it was with a high level of anxiety that I began The Passage.

Well, folks, it is with exuberant, unfaltering joy that I can say, this book is every bit as epic, as horrifying, as magnificent as promised.

From a world-building perspective, the tropes are instantly recognizable, familiar to the genre fiction fan. There’s nothing new about the premise of the book – an apocalypse, born of good intentions gone awry; a pandemic that converts the planet’s population into monsters, the remaining humans defenseless lambs to the slaughter. Justin Cronin’s take on the vampires myth is also somewhat familiar, his mutated “smokes” reminiscent of the recent film version of I Am Legend (not to be confused with Richard Matheson’s original envisioning), and Guillermo del Toror & Chuck Hogan’s more recent The Strain. To those skeptically reading this review, thinking to themselves that this is just another vampire book in a market oversaturated with supposedly “new” takes on vampire lore, what with their Bill Comptons, Edward Cullens, or even Kurt Barlows (for the horror afficionado), rest assured that The Passage is not just another vampire book. Rather (as remarked on Twitter earlier this week), The Passage is “just” another vampire book so much as The Road is “just” another post-apocalypse novel and Dawn of the Dead is “just” another zombie movie.

The Passage is the real deal. It is a book that not only lives up to the gargantuan hype, the impressive scale of its marketing machine, the carrot of its Ridley Scott movie deal – it surpasses expectation because it is just that damn good a story.

While on the one hand these genre tropes are safe and familiar, on the other it’s incredibly smart on author Justin Cronin’s part – these are classic premises for a reason, and Mr. Cronin embellishes his own mythology in just the right places. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Cronin blends the familiar, imbued with his own particular take on apocalypse-by-monster. There are secrets and revelations enough to satisfy the scrutinizing apocalyptic aficionado (believe me, I’m one of the most discriminating of the bunch), but more than just worldbuilding or setting, the most impressive thing about The Passage is how effortless the storytelling is. Yes, it’s a doorstopper at 800 pages long – but it’s the best kind of doorstopper. Have you ever read a book that you didn’t want to end? A book that makes you feel the pang of regret, even as you race to the next page? Such is The Passage. The book is very much like Stephen King in its heft, but with one rather sizeable difference – in King’s books, there is a lot of, shall I say, excess. In The Passage, each page, each side-plot, each character history plays a vital, invaluable role in the book.

And I’ve yet to say anything of the characters! The cast of The Passage is large and varied, covering not only an array of human and infected, but across almost 100 years, as well. And for all that, each character is impeccably detailed; from the tragic Jeanette Bellafonte to the faithful Sister Lacey, the hardened Agent Wolgast to the heartbroken Dr. Lear, the self-doubting Peter, always in the shadow of his brother Theo, to the fiery Alicia. Each has their own distinct voice, their intricate and genuine histories, and I found myself profoundly caring for all of them – even the Virals themselves. Because, with the “monsters” and thematically, I think Mr. Cronin does with The Passage what so many dystopian and apocalyptic authors forget matters the most – he keeps hope alive in his story. Instead of villifying and labeling the vampires in his book as monotonously evil, bent only on blood and death, he shows them in a different light (which I won’t spoil for you, dear readers).

Finally, I do think that “the hype” must be formally addressed – especially for a book which has been pushed so much as The Passage. This is undeniably a genre fiction novel, brought to a mainstream audience – and I cannot express how overjoyed am I that an honest-to-goodness horror/post-apocalyptic mashup garnered such a huge marketing campaign and budget. Not to mention the movie option – seriously, throughout the book, I kept wondering, who is Russell Crowe gonna play? Heh. (I’m thinking Agent Wolgast, or a certain Army Major. Heck, why not Babcock? But therein lie spoilers, and I promise not to go there.) With the hype, however, comes the fear – I am a little nervous because this is not an easy blockbuster read such as, say, The DaVinci Code. I can see where reader opinion may vary and why the book’s intimidating length and large-scale approach to time and characters might lose readers – especially casual readers in our instant gratification era of teh internets – but I’m here to tell you that those naysayers? They miss the point. The Passage is a magnificent gift of a novel about the journey, not the answers (bear in mind, this is the first book of a trilogy). Beautifully written on an epic scale, it is a book that transcends genre.

The Passage is undoubtably the best book I have read in 2010. Absolutely recommended for anyone not scared to take on a book that shatters the mold of mass produced, predictable tripe that looks and reads like every other book on the market; for anyone that enjoys a truly Great read; for anyone that wants wants to be swept away in a torrent of flawless storytelling.

The Passage awaits.

Notable Quotes/Parts: Using Random House’s “insight” widget, you can read the first 80 pages of The Passage below.

Additional Thoughts: As I mentioned above, the marketing campaign for this book is nothing short of impressive. For extras and downloads – everything from iPhone Apps to Twitter avatars and screensavers – check out the official book website HERE.

Once you’ve had your fun there, make sure to check out spinoff website Find Subject Zero (a tie-in blog) and enjoy the goodies, including videos, blog posts, tweets, and more. (I’m a huge sucker for these things, so I highly recommend you visit if you’re similarly inclined). For more content, check out Amazon’s Omnivoracious Page, where you can catch Justin Cronin’s podcasts about the book.

Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection; and I wait with bated breath for the next book in the trilogy.

Reading Next: The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan

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  • Karen Mahoney
    June 25, 2010 at 1:17 am

    I SO want to read this!! I have no idea when I’ll have time, but I’m going to try. 🙂

    Great review, Thea!


    p.s. I much prefer the US cover. The UK one freaks me out…

  • Liz
    June 25, 2010 at 2:13 am

    I am excited to read this…not sure when I’ll fit it in, but I’m sure I will. It’s been sitting on my shelf for months! I keep measuring it going…wow, that’s big…

  • orannia
    June 25, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Thank you Thea. I must be living under a rock…or on an island at the bottom of the world (oh, I am *grin*) as I haven’t heard much about this book at all. Obviously I need to do some more investigating 🙂

  • Amanda
    June 25, 2010 at 3:06 am

    Thanks Thea. Yet ANOTHER book I’m going to have to buy. 😀

    I must’ve been living under a rock too as this is the first I’ve heard of it. Maybe the hype hasn’t hit Australia yet?

  • Shweta
    June 25, 2010 at 3:58 am

    I HAVE to read this book. Just finished a chunkster a few days back but this book will be a definite buy the minute I see it in the book store.

    The UK cover is freaky and reading the review I think it suits the book more :)Though I prefer US cover for the serenity it portrays.

  • julie
    June 25, 2010 at 4:10 am

    Great review – you convinced me to give the book a read.


  • KMont
    June 25, 2010 at 5:36 am

    Wonderful review, Thea! I’m probably not going to run out and get it, but you’ve got me intrigued. 😉 It could be a candidate for the TBR pile once I’ve gotten it whittled downa little more.

    Is explaining why it’s titles The Passage a spoiler? I’m guessing so, I haven’t seen any explanations on why it’s called this. Is it just because it’s, as you say, a journey?

  • katiebabs
    June 25, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Thea, you know what I think about The Passage. It is so funny how we can have 2 totally different opinions! The Passage for me is my worst of 2010 so far. LOL

    I really think what Cronin should have not taken things so far into the future and rather have the reader see things happen days, months and finally years.

    And don’t even get me started on the outcome of Lacey.

    Cronin is no Stephen King and this is not The Stand.

    But I will say this, I think it would make a pretty okay movie. I second Crowe!

  • Amanda Isabel
    June 25, 2010 at 7:02 am

    OMG OMG – I saw promotions for this and was instantly intrigued – after reading this – and such a high mark you gave it – I must go get it now!
    Thanks! 😀

  • Jeff
    June 25, 2010 at 7:12 am

    Thea, I have been waiting for you to review this before picking it up. Thea-crack tends to be pretty similar to Jeff-crack. Still, the hype machine was too big for me to really believe it was *that* good. Looking forward to reading it now.

  • April (Books&Wine)
    June 25, 2010 at 7:38 am

    I loved the beginning of The Passage, but I found it really hard to connect with the characters when it is 100 years later, like I just didn’t care about them until about 100 pages into that section. I will admit, I really enjoyed The Passage and it is probably in my top 20 2010 reads, but I still enjoyed The Stand more.

  • Kristen
    June 25, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I love your review because I feel the same way about The Passage. It’s definitely my favorite book so far in 2010. I finished it two weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about it.

  • Thea
    June 25, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Thanks for all the comments, guys!

    Kaz – I think both covers are awesome, in different ways. The UK one is pretty perfect for how I envision Amy, and the US one is beautiful, but also very atmospheric and…well, creepy. In a different way. I really think you’ll enjoy this book – it might take a while to get through, but it’s a reading experience that is so worth it.

    Liz – Force yourself! I had been putting it off too because of the heft and the crazy reading schedule we have going on here at TBS, but once I started, I regretted how long I had taken to pick it up. It’s THAT good. Make time, dude! :mrgreen:

    Orannia – Oh, I hope you enjoy this one. And since you’re no stranger to tome-like novels, I think you’ll be right at home with The Passage.

    Amanda – You are very welcome 😈 I’m always happy to do my part to increase reckless spending on books.

    I guess The Passage hype hasn’t reached Australia yet! But I’m sure it will, eventually 😉

    Shweta – I completely agree with you about the covers. They are both very evocative and fitting, in different ways. And I will say, this is the perfect book to get you out of a reading slump/rehab for a crap book.

    Julie – Thank you! And I hope you enjoy!

    KMont – Yup, “the passage” as titled is a spoiler that comes near the end of the book, so I’m zipping up on that. But yes, rest assured there is an explanation there.

    And though the heft of this one is daunting, it’s GOOD heft. It’s a book that you don’t want to end because it’s that damn good – and I think you should give it a chance. No pressure. Really. 😈

    KB – Well, that’s the great thing about literature. It’s all relative.

    Well…except that you’re clearly wrong and I’m right. 😈 The Passage works on so many levels, and I loved the “time jump” – very cinematic, and incredibly smart. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutae, the blood and chaos and death (which he does spend some time on, I might add), he chooses to focus on the POST-apocalyptic element. The human element. And this, I believe, is what helps set it apart from the rabble.

    As to the outcome of Lacey, I’m not sure what you mean. She had an AWESOME fate. But to say more would give stuff away, and I’m keeping this spoiler free.

    Cronin is no Stephen King – I dare say that he is BETTER. I think The Passage is on par with The Stand – heck, I prefer this book to The Stand. Tighter writing, characters that are more dimensioned and genuine, and IT’S THE FIRST BOOK OF A TRILOGY.


    Amanda – I hope you enjoy it, and please do let me know what you think when you’re done!

    Jeff – Oh boy, I was hoping you’d comment. I remember talking with you about The Strain, and The Passage shares a few key similarities – the thriller/medical aspect, the vampires, the apocalyptic chaos (at least initially)…but The Passage does everything so much better. It has the heart, the writing chops, the epic scale that I think was missing in The Strain – and given your reading proclivities, I think you just might agree with me once you read this one.

    The hype machine scared me off too, but holy crap, this book lives up to it. I feel like I’m in an alternate universe, where great books get the spotlight they rightfully deserve (as opposed to the crap that usually dominates the mainstream market).

    April – Fair enough! Everyone has their own different ways of connecting with books and characters, and the time jump undoubtedly will put some readers off. As for me, I didn’t have a problem with it (in the grand scheme of things, we are with the initial characters for less than a quarter of the book, and the post-apocalypse protagonists for the rest of the story)! But I’m glad despite that disconnect you still really enjoyed the book 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Kristen – Oh man, I cannot stop thinking about it either (that ending!!!!!!!). I’m so thrilled that you feel the same way – this is the kind of book you want to scream from the rooftops at people like a lunatic, shouting “READ THIS!”

  • Michelle M
    June 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Wow! It’s really that good huh? I’ve been hearing a lot about it (of course) and have been wary of jumping right in. But I think I’m sold now. Thanks for a great review.

  • Allie
    June 25, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I’ve been curious about this book and now I really want to read it. 😮

  • Mrs. DeRaps
    June 26, 2010 at 5:29 am

    Okay, so now I’m going to have to buy this title. I agree that the marketing campaign has been pretty amazing–I see this book everywhere I go. I’m just happy that it’s not unfounded. Thanks for the review.

  • kay
    June 27, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    I am starting this one this week, and your review makes me really excited to read it! I have heard mostly great things about the book, so I’m trying to keep my expectations on the low side (this way I shouldn’t be disappointed eh!) I’m a bit scared that you stated in a comment that he is better than the King… I can’t wait to see if I agree! 😆

  • Leo
    June 28, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I read the book, took me 3 days (damn long). Any who it IS a good read, while I think it stretches parts of the story unnecessarily. Since I live in an island and I hadn’t heard anything about the book (just found it at the top of Border’s Best Sellers) I thought it was standalone just because of the size, and in all honesty it felt like I was reading a trilogy already lol. When I finished reading it I was dissapointed but then after doing a bit of a search and found it to be a trilogy in the making it makes a bit more sense. So many unanswered questions that need answering before I’m satisfied xD.

  • Jennifer
    July 2, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    I was SOOO happy to see a review of this book up here, because I would have read it a weeks ago if I weren’t #347 on the hold list at the library for this book. You see, I’ve been thinking about giving up EVER hoping to get a copy of this book since so many people want it(I’m very impatient, but SERIOUSLY!!! #347 after 3 weeks is…not exciting), but since it was given a 9 rating by you…well, I would do just about ANYTHING to get my hans on a copy of this book.
    P.S. Have you ever thought about reviewing Only The Good Spy Young, by Ally Carter?

  • Chard Stoker Licker
    July 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Read the book and it’s very good. Just hoping the movie version does not disappoint. You can count by your fingers the number of good books given the right cinematic treatment by Hollywood. Ridley Scott is unmatched in visual acumen but his Robin Hood storytelling is tired. Hope he goes back to his Bladerunner and Legend past and inject them with steroids to do justice to ThePassage…. 😀

  • Fletchma
    August 14, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Just read it! I read the whole book on my iPhone- every chance I got but most of the time in bed late, with my head under the blankets so not to disturb my sleeping husband. I devoured every word, racing to see how it ended but not wanting it to end. I loved everything about it although I agree Lacey’s sacrificial demise overdone. But the characters are amazing and set you up for searching for answers to come in the trilogy. If Babcock was so evil, is there hope for Carter? Having read ‘The Road ‘ I searched for a book that would continue the theme of hope and what it means to be human. The Passage does it with a literary style that is compelling. Don’t be put off by the size. You won’t want it to end!

  • Gaileen Phelps
    August 17, 2010 at 6:12 am

    I was confused about the end massacure in Roswell. Loved the book, hated it to end. Now that I know it is a trilogy, I feel better about the end but still confused.

  • Chard Stoker Licker
    August 17, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Gaileen the passage’s Roswell massacre is reminiscent of many hollywood movies’ unexplained ending cliffhanger technique… to guarantee your patronage the second time around… 😉

  • Chocolate Mama
    August 31, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    I just finished this epic novel of magnanimous proportions and was looking for others insight! I absolutely loved this book. The ending was only disappointing in the fact that I could have read another 800 pages! The characters all have weaved a perfect harmony in my mind and literary soul!!

    Can’t wait for more!

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  • Talal
    July 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Its nice , and it really flies with time, but very very confused with the end, I just dont get it !?

  • Lindsey
    July 25, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    I loved this book too, but also agree that is not for every average reader! I’ll also be reading the next two books. Thanks for the review.

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