Alongside The Passage, the second novel in the trilogy, The Twelve has such scope and detail that it’s hard to know where to begin. Before I started The Twelve, and for some length of the novel, I was expecting a very different story to the one its pages held. What I was expecting, following the death of Babcock at the end of The Passage, and the hunt of Martinez, was a Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-esque story in which the characters sought and killed several of the Twelve like the horcruxes, building up to an epic finale with Zero in The City of Mirrors. I don’t know if this is what other people were expecting, but I scanned reviews of the book beforehand, and learned that many were seriously disappointed by it, and a couple of hundred pages in, I could kind of see why. Although I far from agreed with the sentiment, I can see how readers expecting an action-packed horror epic like its previous instalment might be disappointed. Because a large part of The Twelve is character-driven and a little slow in terms of action, although I thought the pace was good. The characterisation and exploration of their lives before the apocalypse was some of the most engaging writing I’ve read in a long time, and this was punctuated by succinct passages of action that sustained The Passage’s momentum. I understand that a lot of the novel isn’t a Michael Bay movie and that’s perhaps what some people expected, but I was completely fine with that. In fact, the novel we got was far superior, I think, to a repetitive hunt of the twelve original virals.
The novel opens with a very brief glimpse into Amy and Alicia’s lives, so brief in fact that at one point I forgot that section even existed, before we are thrown back in time to meet a host of new characters, who seem at first completely disconnected from the whole story of The Passage. I didn’t mind this, though, as I’ve said. Each of the characters were entirely relatable, and it was great to explore the immediate effects of the outbreak, as we get little insight into this in The Passage from Amy and Wolgast’s perspectives. The backstories of each of the characters were painted with great realism, inclusive of passing details that would have kept me engaged for another dozen pages, had they been fleshed out, but their fleeting mentions gave an incredible sense of real events that shaped the characters as irrelevant as they became amongst the apocalypse. I loved the characters of Danny and Lila in part two especially. It was refreshing and provocative to see alternative digestions of the events. Lila’s denial of the entire situation is laughably ludicrous, but it feels so genuine that I found myself growing angry at her, whilst pitying her simultaneously, and for me to feel these emotions for an imagined character is a real testament to Cronin’s writing. On a similar note, I loved the brief perspective of Danny, a guy with learning difficulties who struggles to process the gravity of the situation, and the ways in which he desperately tries to cling to his sense of normality in the context of the apocalypse. I found these touching, as well. I also loved the way connections between characters of The Twelve and The Passage were delivered. Mainly Lila, and the way Cronin created this relatable backstory for her, and only then disclosed the connection between her and Wolgast. It was like hearing two sides to a story but only afterwards realising they were the same story all along. But he sprinkled suggestions in there for those with a keen eye, that I didn’t myself pick up on (perhaps because it had been a long time since I read The Passage) but that all came together when the truth was revealed. And this intricacy continues throughout the novel; there are great moments of insidious suspense were you’re simultaneously lulled into a false sense of security, and presented with red warning signs that shit is about to go down.
When we eventually catch up with The Passage’s characters, characters who had an almost familial sense, I delighted in their reunions, but pondered on the ways they had all changed. Their interweaving narratives quickly pick up pace, and after a very brief re-establishment, they begin an accelerating trajectory towards the climax, which proved both thrilling and epic in scale. There was a question in my mind as to whether its culmination could live up to that of The Passage, but I was not disappointed. I do have a few issues with some details of the novel, and a lot of them are to do with the ending, but they aren’t enough to detract from its pay-off, and overall the narrative arc is solid. The story, and writing for that matter, seemed considerably more coherent than The Passage. There were two or three moments where I was bombarded with too many characters or events at one time, and I had to pause to comprehend it, but generally it’s very good, and for a novel with so much happening and so many people to follow, the writing keeps up well.
So, what are the things I didn’t like? They are few, but I think worth mentioning. Firstly, as I stated before, the story is a vastly different one to what I came in expecting; the story largely focuses around the camp governed by Guilder and his red-eyes. It has a dystopian tone, but not such that it pervades the novel, which is at its core about Amy and the other characters and their fight against the virals. However, with such a large part of the plot focusing around the camp, and the rebellion against it, I think the novel might have benefited from a deeper insight into the insurgence. We get a glimpse into it through other characters, but I think an inside perspective, even if brief, would have been good. It’s not a major complaint – in fact the novel works just fine as it is – but still there was a large emphasis on their fight against the red-eyes and their authoritarian ways, yet we only meet two or three characters from the rebellion, and it seems like it could run so much deeper.
At a couple of occasions, I also found the language too light. One occasion in particular where a character suffers a great deal, there’s a moment of real rage and humanity, but the language the character uses is too weak in my opinion. It seemed all the F-bombs were replaced with lesser words, and it just didn’t work for me. In moments of real trauma, people swear their fucking hearts out, because it’s a moment of deep expression, whether it’s desperation or rage or whatever. It’s like in movies with really serious tones, but a younger target audience, where something tragic happens, and they go: ‘Oh, no.’ I remember watching a BBC drama where a kid’s mum died and he was sad for the episode, but then the next he was completely fine as if nothing had happened. That’s just bad writing; if you can’t be bothered to explore the aftermath of a traumatic situation, don’t write it to start with. Now, I’m not saying that’s the case with Justin Cronin, his writing’s spot on for the most part; he seems to grasp the nuances with which different events manifest themselves in a person’s thoughts and behaviour, but then there a couple of instances like that. Perhaps it’s only a cultural thing – I know a lot of Americans are more averse to strong profanity than other cultures – but it didn’t stop Cronin in other sections.
Another gripe I have is with the characters’ fates in the end. I was expecting at least one major character to die during the finale, because the gain was so significant that I felt their loss should have equalled it for dramatic equilibrium. It’s not a huge gripe, and I understand not every novel is A Game of Thrones, but I still think there should have been a greater sacrifice. Maybe, he’s saving that for the last book; I will find out shortly. I also was caught up on the whole revelation with Carter. Its explanation I felt was a little weak, and although it was touching from an emotional and nostalgic perspective, it didn’t make an awful lot of sense. Also, does that mean Carter’s still out there as well as Zero? I know he’s more humanised than the other twelve, but he’s still one of the original virals, yet the ending of The Twelve implied that the twelve were all dead and only Zero remained as a threat. Still, in the midst of the scope of the novel, it’s not surprising that either Cronin would neglect a few details or that the reader would get confused. For the most part, it’s a really well written novel.
To offer some kind of summary, I understand the negative reviews, at least for the first half or so of the novel (because the ending was every bit as epic as The Passage’s, if not more) but I don’t agree. Contrarily, The Twelve is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Ordinarily I’m excited to finish a novel, and although I powered through its last few hundred pages to see how it played out, in many ways, I didn’t want the novel to end. There’s a quote from Stephen King about The Passage: ‘Read this book and the ordinary world disappears’, and I totally agree with regard to its sequel. For the duration of the novel, I was living my life on the cusp of two worlds, one being the imagined apocalyptic world Justin Cronin created, and that’s a big fucking feat when you can say that about a book. It wasn’t necessarily provocative on any philosophical level, but that’s okay; I think The twelve confidently depicts a great story and relatable characters, and to try and do much more would inevitably detract from what it does do so well. For me, it was better in virtually every way to its predecessor, so I cannot wait to see what The City of Mirrors holds.