The Twelve by Justin Cronin is the second of his post-apocalyptic/vampire trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Passage. I wrote a spoilerific analysis of one of the major characters in The Passage a while back. This review will refrain from divulging any major spoilers.
That makes it very difficult to write this review, because, boy, are there some huge surprises in this book.
Most sequels pick up where the last book left off, but that doesn’t quite happen with The Twelve. Cronin finds a clever way to bring readers back up to speed in the beginning (I won’t say how) and briefly lands five years after the events of the previous book.
Then he goes back to Year Zero, when the plague of “virals”–vampire/zombie-ish creatures created in the lab–was unleashed on the North American continent.
The characters he follows are some we’ve met before, including some whose fates seemed a foregone conclusion. Turns out, we were wrong. The new characters in this part of the book seem disconnected from the story so far, but keep reading, because everything turns out to be connected.
That’s not to say this part of the book is boring or a trial to read, far from it. As in the first book, the collapse of this world is incredibly gripping and his characters are fascinating. The reader’s patience–because we waited SO patiently for two years to find out what happens next–is richly rewarded, both by finding out what happens to the characters in Year Zero and by how the story continues 97 years later.
The title The Twelve refer to the original virals who were created by the government as a possible military weapon. They were death row inmates persuaded by FBI agent Brad Wolgast to take a treatment that might be the key to prolonging life indefinitely. A little girl named Amy was given a milder form of the virus and after one hundred years still looks like a pre-teen. She eventually made it to The Colony, a walled village of survivors who assumed they were the last people left on Earth. Some members of the colony, including Peter Jaxson, Alicia Denadio, Sara and Michael Fisher, realized Amy may be the key to finding a way to defeat the virals, so they set out on a perilous journey in the last book to find out how.
After one of the original virals, Babcock, was killed, Amy was able to help all the virals he created with their “passage” from life into death. She and Peter hoped that meant by killing the other original virals, they could reclaim the world for humans again. They also found out there were more human survivors, including a city in Texas with tens of thousands of them.
After five years, to Peter’s dismay, there has been no progress in destroying the rest of the original virals. Now a soldier, he finds himself going AWOL to seek out another rumored enclave of survivors in Iowa.
This turns out to be a place called The Homeland, a fascist dictatorship lead by Horace Guilder. He is a “red-eye”–a sort-of viral–who was a government bureaucrat in the “time before.” The Homeland is populated by survivors who have been kidnapped from other areas of the country and are forced to live in a kind of concentration camp to work as virtual slaves.
That’s where I have to stop giving an overview of the plot, because as I said, it’s chock full of surprises. Mr. Cronin certainly knows how to keep things from proceeding in a predictable manner.
He also has a remarkable talent for creating characters people genuinely care about. When he “killed off” a major character in the first book (yes, the quotes are there for a reason) it was hugely controversial, mainly because he was such a beautifully conceived character. While the book has some truly evil characters, almost all are given moments of complexity.
I felt a major theme of the first book was how goodness is not always sufficient in battling evil, as good people helped create the crisis by the sin of omission, or by waiting too long to act. In The Twelve, redemption is a strong theme that runs through the story, as several characters try to right many wrongs, including some they helped to create. Another running theme is the relationship between parent and child, as several characters lose or are separated from their children.
Consequently, this is a book populated by many sad and lonely characters, including some of the monsters, who aren’t quite as monstrous as one would assume. Some are going to break your heart. They sure broke mine.
My one quibble with the book is some of the violence (particularly against some of the women characters) is a bit more over-the-top than necessary. Not that I expect little or no violence in such a tale, but it could have been pulled back just a tad and still been just as effective.
Other than that, I found this a more than worthy follow-up to The Passage, and am once again facing a looong two-year wait for the next book, The City Of Mirrors. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into that one.
(I know, I know . . . I couldn’t resist.)