Trilogies are tricky. No matter what you do, if the first book has been a slam dunk success the way that Justin Cronin's The Passage was two summers ago, you'll struggle to deliver something that fans find just as overwhelmingly impressive. On the flip side, the story isn't over yet: your second novel is a bridge that readers need to find compelling enough that they'll read it through and come back for the final installment. None of that is easy.
That said... if you loved The Passage, you'll find a lot in this sequel to like, and maybe you'll even end up loving it, too -- if not quite as much. (Just don't try to read this as a stand-alone book; you'll struggle to make sense of what is going on.) It's just as convoluted and dense a novel, jam-packed with characters. It's actually slightly more confusing, because while in The Passage Cronin began with the events of the year Zero and then moved forward to his main time frame, 97 years later, focusing on the small group of survivors in the Colony in California and the challenges that confronted them, in The Twelve he is trying to wrangle a larger number of characters and a much larger canvas, one ranging from the very real survivor community of Kerrville, Texas, to the surreal/fantastical "world" that Amy visits as part of her own quest. Indeed, each of the main characters is on a kind of quest here, and the novel's focus skips and jumps, back and forth in time and into different parts of the post-viral era to give the reader a complete view of what's afoot. The problem is that there is so much happening that I was a third of the way through the book before I even began to see how the various bits and pieces fit together. And I was more than halfway through before I reached the stage where I couldn't put the book down and do something else.
So, what's the sequel all about? Well, when it opens, the surviving members of the Colony's expedition to take Amy to Colorado are now mostly scattered. Alicia and Peter are still together, but in the Expeditionary, hunting the twelve disciples of "Zero" in hopes to eliminating the viral menace. Michael is working on the oil road, keeping Kerrville supplied with fuel and power. Amy has joined a group of Sisters and is overseeing five-year-old Caleb, the son of Theo and Mausami. But the "survivors" aren't just from the colony; Cronin takes us back to the year zero, and re-introduces us to figures like Lila, Carter and even Wolgast, and introduces us to new characters to help fill in some of the backstory for some of his main ongoing characters and help set the stage for what will happen in the final third of the book. Cronin does a good job of managing the myriad narrative threads and alternating breathtaking suspenseful segments with more thoughtful passages that remind us that there is a new kind of everyday life still going on in the widely-dispersed survivor communities. The question becomes: what kind of survivor existence will triumph? It's hard to say more about the plot without venturing into spoiler territory, but the bottom line is that while it's a less straightforward narrative than in The Passage, the sequel offers a dystopian future that is less nuanced than that Cronin depicted in the Colony, but even more chilling for being more explicit.
Something that struck me more forcefully in this book, and that had begun to irritate me toward the end, is that this novel is even more intensively visionary, with more explicit religious imagery of a Christian nature. There are the Twelve of the book's title -- only instead of apostles, they are virals. Yes, they consume flesh and blood as Jesus invited his apostles to do at the Last Supper -- but they consume human flesh and blood. There's a sacrifice, late in the book, with someone pinned to a Y-shaped frame rather than a cross, preparing to sacrifice their life for their comrades and fellow humans. There is the image of pursuing the light, and the fact that virals (like vampires) cannot sustain themselves in the light. There is resurrection, of sorts, and transformation. There are the labels like "Michael the Clever, Bridger of Worlds" or "Amy of Souls". At times, this simply became too heavy-handed for my taste, and my religious views aren't such that I would be offended by the hijacking or distortion of the Biblical narrative; those who are likely to take offense to the above, even in the midst of a book whose core message revolves around salvation and divinity, should probably avoid this at all costs.
This isn't a literary novel. Yes, the book is well-written, but ultimately it's an up-market thriller, with Big Themes and Big Ideas, but characters who will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a Good vs Evil chronicle. Admittedly, Alicia appears to be a complex character in this book -- but while her body may be divided, her heart and soul are in the right place. There's really none of the moral ambiguity or grey areas that, to me, characterize a complex narrative. Here, the complexity is reserved for the sprawling plot, and Cronin certainly has enough on his hands dealing with that. Think latter-day "Lord of the Rings" in nature, with (obviously) a very different kind of plot, writing style, characters and setting, but not that different in scope and essential nature.
If you loved The Passage, I'd certainly suggest trying this -- although be careful of letting your expectations become too high. If you haven't read The Passage, don't try this until you have -- and even if you already have read the first book in Cronin's proposed trilogy, it might be a good idea to re-read it before diving into this sequel. Be patient, and brace yourself for the slow pace of the revelations.
I obtained an advance readers' edition of The Twelve from the publishers at BookExpo (BEA) in June.