I loved Justin Cronin’s The Passage when I first read it years ago, so I was thrilled to receive a Binge Box from Penguin Random House Canada a few months ago with the rest of the trilogy, including an advance reading copy of the conclusion, The City of Mirrors.
I admit I was a bit apprehensive at first, since I re-read The Passage to remind myself of the story, and found it didn’t quite hold up to my memory of the experience. Whereas I loved it so much at first read that I lugged the almost-1000-page tome around on the subway to and from work, I found the second read interesting but not quite as gripping anymore. It may have been my mood or just the lack of novelty the second time around, but for whatever reason, I was afraid the magic was gone.
This fear intensified with the second book, The Twelve, which to be honest, I struggled to finish. I think my main problem with it is that much of it felt very much like the same events of The Passage, only from a different perspective. I already knew how that turned out, and I was impatient to get on with the story of Peter, Sara, Amy and Alicia.
But then I read The City of Mirrors and my fears were allayed. Here was some of that old magic I remember from my first read of The Passage. The Twelve have been destroyed, and human survivors are beginning to settle down and rebuild their lives. Peter, wanting nothing more than a quiet life after years of battling virals, is pulled back into a leadership role by the president, who wants his charisma and respected status in the community to help her rally the survivors into a working, sustainable society. Unfortunately, they’re wrong to think the threat is over. The ultimate viral Zero is still undead and well, and he wants to use Alicia, now a viral/human hybrid, to hunt down and destroy Amy, the one person who can defeat him.
City of Mirrors recaptures the wonderful blend of action-packed scenes and quiet moments of despair that had made Passage so compelling. The cast of characters has grown so large that I honestly couldn’t keep track of who all of them were anymore, but the sense of tragedy when the settlement is attacked still had an emotional impact. There’s a moment where children and their mothers are ordered to hide in a particular building while other able bodied adults are conscripted to fight, and Sara and her colleagues are armed with guns to protect them. When Sara points out that the guns won’t be much use against virals, she is told that they aren’t for virals but rather humans who would stop at nothing to find refuge. The moment is both chilling and tragic, a fraught reminder of how far we would go to survive, and how much those in charge must do to keep us from surviving at the cost of those more vulnerable.
I also enjoyed the love story between Peter’s son and a deaf woman raised by Sara. I love how he taught himself to sign for her, and I especially love the scene where she tells him she was going to introduce herself to the woman next door. He asks if he should go with her to interpret, particularly since the woman’s husband earlier had been a bit uncomfortable communicating with a deaf person, and she waves him off, signing that women will have no problem communicating with each other. I love that confidence, and I love that it turns out to be true and that the women do strike a friendship. It’s a moment of humanity and connection in the eye of the storm so to speak, as no one is yet aware of the impending war, and it made the characters real for me just like a casual conversation about a classic children’s book made the characters real for me in The Passage.
I’m not sure how I feel about the ending other than it feels fitting. The climax was messy and spiritual and brought to fore the full powers of Amy and Alicia and Peter all working together. Not all of the characters got quite the happily ever after I was hoping for, which quite frankly I think they deserved after almost 3000 pages of battling virals, but that’s pretty much in line with the rest of the series. Cronin gave Amy almost godlike powers, yet throughout the series has resister deux ex machina easy solutions. The author has never held back from leaving beloved characters scarred by their experiences, and true to form, the ending is bittersweet.
I do like that Cronin gives us an epilogue — a glimpse far into humanity’s future as evidenced by the reports and lectures scattered throughout the series, where the stories of Peter and Amy and their friends are now part of history or possibly even of mythology. No one is sure of how real these stories are anymore, and scholars speak of their significance much like contemporary scholars speak of religious texts and ancient mythology. An upcoming landmark event sparks a return to the past, and what these characters in the future discover provides the bittersweet taste that Cronin leaves us with.
I don’t know if I’ll read these books again, as I think much of their magic is in the initial experience, but I’m glad I read them. And certainly, if you’ve read and enjoyed The Passage, it’s worth reading through to make it to the end.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of City of Mirrors and for the rest of the awesome Binge Box. It may have taken me longer than a long weekend to binge through the entire library, but I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the treat.