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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
Here's where things stood at the end of book two: The Twelve—former death-row inmates who were part of a military experiment
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
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
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
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
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.
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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