He was asked to write a story in which a girl saved the world. What happened is an intense epic featuring contamination, death, survivor, and a constant battle between dark and light.
I first read The Passage two years ago, soon after it was first published. It instantly reminded me of Stephen King’s “The Stand”: the same kind of nostalgic, pathos-laden intro that reads with a kind of soft sadness, followed by an abrupt break into the second act. Cronin is particularly brave in that he leaps forward a hundred years: King only took the audience forward a month or so.
What makes the book stand apart, aside from the sparse, evocative language and compelling characters, is the constant themes running through the novel. The questions of “Who Am I” and “What is Home” are those universal themes that are found in many great works of literature. In The Passage, Cronin deftly illustrates the way in which the answer to those questions differs from person to person, shown most strikingly in the persons of the Jaxon brothers.
The most interesting aspect of Cronin’s novel, however, is his description of light. In a world in which “virals” are at the top of the food chain and humans live far, far below, light means life, in a very real way. (The virals, for those who haven’t read the novel, are, in essence, a blend of the zombie and the vampire. Cronin tries to distinguish them, make them into some kind of “new” monster, but what it comes down to is that they are zompires). In the first Act, light is ever-present, but hardly noticed — the way it reflects off the shine in a young girl’s hair, headlights on a road, dust motes floating in the air. Light is everpresent, but unimportant.
But then come the virals, these creatures that cannot stand the light, that burn to dust in the sun and shy away from any form of light. And in the beginning of the second act, the Lights of the Colony become a character in their own right. (Think of the lights for an NFL football game, but pointed out of the stadium, and far more intense — those are the Lights of the Colony, designed to keep the virals at bay). Here’s where things get fun — the lights are so bright, so blinding, that they entirely block out the stars. Light drowns out light.
When our heroes leave the Colony (as heroes must, in every epic) they spend the first night without Lights terrified, huddled, certain of death. But then they see the stairs, and it is that soft, natural light that drives them forward. In the end, nature over science, and while technology and machinery run throughout the story, with characters eternally relying upon them, in the end it is always the stars and their own humanity that saves them — not all the gadgets or Lights in the world.
With one character literally called “Circuit” in a nod to the machinery-driven world, it will be interesting to see where Cronin takes this theme — whether it is one that he himself has recognized, or merely an organic outgrowth of the work. I look forward to reading his follow-up, and sharing my thoughts on that, as well.