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Onyx reviews: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

In The Passage, Justin Cronin defied many of the conventions of both vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction. The novel featured huge gaps in chronology and cast aside some of the typical elements of genre. Instead of depicting the end of days in detail, he focused on two characters who hear distant rumors about the downfall of civilization. Then he jumped forward nearly a century.

Given this, readers shouldn't be surprised to discover that The Twelve isn't a typical sequel. Cronin doesn't immediately resolve the cliffhanger at the end of The Passage. He backs up to Year Zero, the onset of the apocalypse. America is dying, and people are trying to figure out how to escape and where to regroup. He presents the ordeals faced by a new set of survivors. He shows how society breaks down and how well-meaning organizations (mostly military) collapse under the primitive drive of self-preservation. Cronin isn't telling this story just for the fun of it. Many of these characters—or their descendents—will prove to be important in surprising ways later in the book. 

Then he jumps forward again, picking up the thread of The Passage after members of the First Colony left their former safe haven. He shows new enclaves, such as the one in Kerrville, Texas, part of the sovereign nation of Texas. The virals are still a threat, but Kerrville's defenses are comparatively strong. That doesn't make them immune to blitz attacks, though. Several times in the book, Cronin builds up to dramatic confrontations between survivors and virals only to skip over the battles. Instead, these incidents become the stuff of legends. The gory details aren't so important, Cronin seems to be saying. People fought and died. There were survivors. There's nothing to be gained by putting each wound and death under a microscope. That's not to say that he is afraid of violence: the book does have some explicit scenes, both of violence and of sex, though the latter doesn't often involve characters about whom readers care much.

Some readers may find that Cronin doesn't devote enough time to bringing them back up to speed about what happened in the first book, published two years ago. The synopsis, couched in Biblical phraseology, is interesting but insufficient. The series cast is huge (readers can avail themselves of the Dramatis Personae at the back of the book, but the information provided there is limited), the timeline disjointed, and surreal moments take place in a mysterious dreamspace that thus far defies explanation. The relative brevity of some of the set pieces can be disappointing. Just when readers become invested in a new set of characters or context, Cronin takes off to another, never to return.

The book's title refers to the twelve death-row inmates who were part of a military experiment wherin 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. A young girl named Amy—who is, in as-yet unrevealed ways, the heart of the series—was the thirteenth test subject, but the virus affected her differently. 

One of the problems with the virus from the viral point of view is that it is too efficient. Eventually they are going to run out of food unless something changes. Groups of soldiers, including Peter Jaxon, the reluctant leader of the expedi­tion out First Colony, and Alicia Donadio, a viral-human mutant, set out to track down and destroy the surviving members of The Twelve, who some people consider to be a myth. Killing one of these virals destroys all of the secondary virals (or dracs) he was responsible for creating. 

The remaining humans have regrouped in isolated enclaves. In one of the largest, traitors work for the virals, capturing and enslaving other survivors to feed the viral machine. This spawns a revolt in which human insurgents become martyrs to the cause. There are some well-crafted dramatic confrontations—one in particular involves Alicia and Peter descending into a mine where they think one of The Twelve is residing—and the climax provides some rewarding moments, but the novel suffers from middle-book-itis. A second volume should increase the stakes and set the stage for the final conflict, but The Twelve doesn't quite do that. It doesn't exactly tread water, but there is a lingering sense that much of what happens won't ultimately be all that important.

In retrospect, the overall structure of the trilogy might be called into question. Perhaps the first book should have taken the more traditional approach, concentrating on events soon after Year Zero instead of having the second book backtrack for approximately 200 pages to introduce a new set of characters in an already established context. Did Cronin not know that these characters were going to be important until he commenced writing the second book? The middle book, then, could have dealt with First Colony and its aftermath, and the series would have had a stronger and unbroken sense of forward momentum that is lost by the prolonged "flashback" that opens The Twelve.

Beneath the surface, there is a sense that something is happening that is bigger than the incidents on the page. People encounter each other over and over in a way that makes it seem like someone is orchestrating events. Though subtle, there is a religious or spiritual subtext coupled with a sense of destiny that may be explored more overtly in the series' final installment. 

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