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Onyx reviews: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 5/24/2016

It's been four years in the real world since The Twelve, the second installment in Justin Cronin's trilogy, was published, and half a dozen since The Passage. The author has helpfully provided detailed synopses of the first two books at his website, but they may not be necessary. There's a Biblical-style refresher at the beginning of this third book, too, but readers should quickly fall back into the post-apocalyptic world, thanks to a large cast of eminently memorable characters.

Here's where things stood at the end of book two: The Twelve—former death-row inmates who were part of a military experiment wherein they were infected with a virus that was supposed to give them the ability to fight off any disease but instead turned them into eternal creatures with insatiable bloodlust and superhuman strength—are gone, taking with them their respective armies of minion virals known as dracs. The threat to humanity is over. It's time to rebuild civilization.

Or so people believe. 

It has been years since the last attack by virals, and residents of the Texas Republic are starting to breathe easy. The younger generation regards dracs as near-mythic creatures or legends. The enclave at Kerrville has loosened its security measures. People are starting to emigrate west across the state, re-establishing old communities like an earlier generation of settlers. One would be forgiven for imagining the theme song from Bonanza (or Deadwood) in the background. There is still a centralized government, but it's becoming less relevant in a world where communication relies on telegraph lines and sporadic mail service.

Zero, the original carrier of the infection, a man once known as Dr. Timothy Fanning, has been waiting in an empty but familiar city for the remaining humans to let their guard down. Zero has his own league of virals, creatures that have been lying dormant for years. They are even more powerful and more terrible than the others, and no one suspects the imminent danger.

No one but Michael, who has the benefit of visions provided to him via Amy—the little girl destined to save the world—and Carter, the twelfth of the Twelve, both of whom miraculously survived the carnage that brought an end to the other virals. Carter is more benign than his murderous brethren. His minions are known as "dopeys" because of their reluctance to cause harm. Amy is a special kind of viral. Infected as a young girl she has remained young for over a century and found a way to overcome her disease, although at the beginning of the book she and Carter are locked up inside an abandoned oil tanker marooned in downtown Houston. Their bloodlust makes them dangerous allies.

The vision Michael is told about alludes to an island in the South Pacific where the remnants of humanity might be safe. Forces beyond understanding have provided him with the tool he needs to get there: another abandoned ship, this one foundering in the Houston ship channel. It will take decades to get it seaworthy for the long trip, and he'll only be able to take 700 people with him, but he embraces the task. It's an unlikely kind of ark, but it's the best chance of survival for the human race.

After setting the stage, Cronin takes readers on a strange journey. Alicia, who is a human-viral hybrid, finds herself drawn to Manhattan, the city of mirrors from the book's title, where she meets Zero. He tells her the story of his life before he was infected in Bolivia. It's a novel-length tale, starting with his departure from Mercy, Ohio for Harvard, that details his years adjusting to his new life. His ups and downs, his friendships and loves, his academic achievements. It feels like a digression that goes on for a big chunk of the book, but there's a point to all this: the human race was doomed on account of star-crossed lovers, in a sense. Two of the men who went to South America as part of a team seeking a cure for all diseases were inspired by their love for a woman. The same woman, as it happens. Readers will come to empathize with Zero and understand the monster that he has become.

Having established this backstory, Cronin launches into the action. Strange things start to happen in the settlements. People are disappearing. Towns are seemingly abandoned. There are rumors of dangerous animals in the wilderness—mountain lions, perhaps. The truth is even more terrible than that, and by the time anyone figures out what's going on, it's too late to save most of the settlers. Cronin shows little mercy for a large group of characters.

Kerrville receives the alarm at the last minute and re-launches its security measures, but they're fighting an enemy unlike any they've faced in the past. Even veterans of the viral conflict, like now-President Peter Jaxon, underestimate their ultimate foe, and it looks like Michael's long game will be the only way to survive. However, another monumental confrontation is looming, one that threatens to lay waste to one of the most famous places on earth.

Unlike many other post-apocalyptic novels, The Passage trilogy has great scope. Some other books in the genre encompass huge swaths of geography, but few—if any—cover a similar span of time. Cronin is not averse to jumping forward years, decades, even centuries at a time. He allows his characters to age, to produce children and grandchildren, to live full, albeit harrowing, lives. To die, sometimes even of natural causes. 

He sees a big picture in humanity's ability to survive, even if only in small numbers, and in the earth's ability to rebound from human occupation. Though it's not an overt statement in the book, it's not too hard to read between the lines the notion that perhaps the planet has reached a social and ecological limit where a population needs to crash in numbers for its overall preservation.

An underlying spirituality emphasizes the power of love—between family members, friends, and lovers. This force inspires simple people to do heroic things, to put their lives on the line. It is a power for good, but it also has the ability to corrupt, especially when it is unrequited or unconsummated.

Endings are hard, which may be why epics of this type sometimes have so many of them. Just when you think it's over, there's another coda or epilog. Interestingly, in Cronin's mind the future looks very much like the present. 

The one end he allows to remain loose is the question of what happens to society when it is introduced to something mythic. The people of First Colony were able to deal with many mysterious things, but what happens when enough time has passed that history becomes legend?

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