Sunday, July 25, 2010
First Published: 2010
The Blurb: What strange places our lives can carry us to. What dark passages…
Deep in the jungles of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he’s been searching for – and wishes to God he hadn’t.
In Memphis, Tennessee, a six year old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother has abandoned her.
In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murderer called Giles Babcock has the same nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for a lethal injection.
In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home – so he can kill him.
Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man’s darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human.
The Review: You know I should be jealous. This book – 766 pages and the first of a trilogy – sparked a multi-million bidding war with the publishing houses, has allegedly had the movie rights sold pre-completion (to Fox 2000) and Ridley Scott has been strongly suggested as the director. Then again, having read the damn thing, it deserves it.
Comparisons have been given to Stephen King’s The Stand – and such are understandable. This is a post-apocalyptic story, where a virus rips through the continental United States and said virus has been released due to the black ops military experiments with an old, old virus.
The comparison is also fair as Cronin’s writing reminds me of King, a wonderful eye for minutia combined with a detailed character building. How detailed? The first couple of hundred pages show us how the outbreak occurred and introduce us to characters most of whom cannot survive and yet we know them, feel them as Cronin weaves them around us.
Of course there is another predecessor book this owes a debt to, I Am Legend, the granddaddy of apocalyptic novels. This is, however, a unique take on the concept, with more of a philosophical/mystical heart than Matheson.
The year is round the 2018 region and the military are experimenting with a virus to make a super-soldier that will self heal on the battlefield. They are using it on death row “volunteers”. Eventually Fanning – infected during the original expedition to Colombia to find a legendary virus and known as zero – plus 12 “volunteers” are infected. They have become known as sticks – due to the way their new bioluminescence makes them glow like glowsticks – and they are no longer anything that resembles human. They are fed rabbits and it has been noted that they will eat 9 and leave the tenth, ripping the 9 apart. With each test subject the virus has been weakened but the results have been the same... a new type of subject is needed.
That is Amy, a six year old abandoned by her mother. Younger than the other ‘volunteers’ and with the weakest dose yet, the viral effects are somewhat different. However the army are unable to capitalise on that as the sticks have been influencing the dreams of those around them and an outbreak occurs. As the book suggests it only took “thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” Suddenly the meaning of the tenth rabbit is clear, they feed on 9 and infect the 10th human victim.
Wolgast, the FBI agent who had been working with the military to bring in the ‘volunteers’, helps Amy to escape and it is through his eyes we see the death of the world but it is done at a distance, third hand as he hides in the mountains with her. A very clever way of making a chilling finale to the world without getting crushed in detail. It is also the way our vampires – known as virals, smokes or dracs at different stages – are drawn.
Cronin goes back to a world of horror where you rarely see the enemy, as a reader, a horror that is truly terrible and, for the characters, when these monsters fall from above (they hunt from height) you are likely dead. The book itself has been accused of becoming slow after a while. Not really so, but it is a victim of its own style. When we have reached the end of the Amy/Wolgast story we flip to a diary describing the creation of First Colony – a place of alleged safety in the Californian Mountains. We then jump forward 92 years, the colony intact, under bright lights that shine through the night and the survivors who (other than walkers, who come in from the desert – something that hasn’t happened for years) try and keep themselves (and humanity) alive in the midst of a post-apocalyptic world. We then go through a new round of character building, which is where I think folks believe the book has slowed – it hasn’t but Cronin’s style demands he builds rounded characters again. Perhaps the tone becomes a tad action adventure towards the end.
Amy, of course, is still out there – perhaps aged to around 14 in appearance she is sensitive to sunlight and apparently immortal, she heals rather quickly but that is the only physical thing she has in common with her viral cousins. The virals, our vampires, are insanely strong, a mass of tooth and claw and must be killed by hitting the sweetspot – in the breastbone (the equivalent of staking). There are other aspects that relate to standard vampire lore. Sunlight burns them, killing them eventually, and they avoid bright lights. It is noted that those infected always return home and this is akin to needing “native soil” and also the more traditional idea of preying on one’s family. Garlic is mentioned, but it is a very brief mention and it appears they like it rather than not.
They attack at the neck and spread the virus that way and one is distracted, at one point, when shown a mirrored surface – reminding her of individuality or her humanity? There is an interconnectedness between the virals, on a telepathic level, and the original virals can influence weaker willed minds. This interconnectedness also ties in with a commonly used piece of lore and... it is a spoiler too far and I have said too much already.
I found this an astonishing read, a wonderful take on vampirism, a fantastic look at a post-apocalyptic landscape with a ribbon of hope thread through it that sees fate plays a hand in this world as much as anything else. Highly recommended for those who like their post apocalypse with a seasoning of King-like detail, their vampire lore unusual and their vista epic. 9 out of 10.