Apocalypse, Again: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Sometimes it feels like the world has been ending forever.

But hey, who’s been around that long? So let’s begin again… a little less expansively, perhaps. In recent years, at least—in fiction and in film; in video games, comic books and on TV too—there has been an interest in the apocalypse that borders, if you ask me, on the obscene. A fascination has emerged fully fledged, an obsession if you will—and for some folks it is exactly that—with how the world will end, and what, if anything, could come after.

Safe to say, surely, that this premise has been more prevalent than ever this century. Every week, another iteration of the apocalypse: in our mind’s eye the world has already ended every which way except in actuality, such that a dead or dying planet no longer requires much imagination on our part, nor is this a theme deserving of attention in itself. In a sense, the end of everything has become the new normal.

Unsurprisingly then, in the summer of 2010, the world ended… again. But this time, folks noticed. A consensus arose that this was an apocalypse with panache. Like The Stand, or Swan SongThe Passage envisioned the loss of life as we live it on a vast canvas, yet found its power in the particulars. In the tale of Amy, otherwise known as “the Girl from Nowhere, in whose person time was not a circle but a thing stopped and held, a century cupped in the hand,” and Brad Wolghast, a company man whose job it was to bring her in, but abandoned the task to spend his last years as a father to this immortal orphan.

This was but the first of The Passage’s many parts, and in retrospect, it was the book’s most affecting segment—though there were moments in those that followed, which revolved around the rise of the First Colony established after the virus, its fall some hundred years on, and the pilgrimage made into the wider world by several of its survivors. Come the conclusion, The Passage’s core cast had learned—at long last—how they might go about fighting back.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves already, because before the story can end, it must begin again—or so Justin Cronin supposes.

Thus, The Twelve too hearkens back to the dawn of this dark new era in human history, with an opening act reminiscent of its hugely successful predecessor’s prolonged prologue. Herein we meet Wolghast’s estranged ex, Lila, and spend some quality time with one Lawrence Grey, “a model citizen, at least by the standards of a chemically neutered child molester” who awakens in Year Zero a changed man—or else a monster merely remade. As with Amy and her adopted daddy in The Passage, Lawrence and Lila have a part to play in the larger narrative… which is more than can be said for most of the characters we’re introduced to during this pivotal period.

In any event, the bulk of hulking tale told in The Twelve occurs long after this origin story of sorts. Come to that, another five years have passed since the climax of The Passage, during which time the aforementioned survivors have gone their separate ways. Our leads Peter and Alicia are working with the Expeditionary, hunting down the eleven master vampires—sorry, virals!—that remain of the titular twelve established in the last novel—though beyond Babcock’s demise they have had precious little success in their expensive endeavours, such that the operation has become unsustainable according to the army.

Meanwhile, Michael has made a new life for himself as the man in charge of a dangerous biodiesel plant; Major Greer has found inner peace in prison, where he was sent for disobeying a direct order during the attack on Babcock; grieving over the loss of the love of his life, Hollis has surrounded himself with sin in a den of vice on the fringes of the city of Kerrville, TX. As to Sara herself, well… she’s dead. Isn’t she?

As it happens, she’s not, no. On the other hand, she’s hardly happy to be alive. During the destruction of First Colony, Sara was snatched by the henchmen of Horace Guilder, the despicable Director of a totalitarian territory known as the Homeland. However, all is not lost: insurrection is in the air, and soon—remembering that all things are relative in a book of this breadth—Sara finds herself involved with the rebels.

Nor is Sara’s the only surprise revival. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say another fallen figure from The Passage returns, albeit briefly, in The Twelve. Sadly, this second coming, as appealing as it is initially, only serves in the end to cheapen the impact of that character’s previous passing.

Long story short, Cronin’s core cast members have moved on. They’re all over the place, both figuratively and literally—and so too, in turn, is The Twelve. A stupendous proportion of it is spent simply getting the gang back together; adding insult to injury, almost nothing of note happens until they are. And then?

“Everything possessed a striking familiarity, as if no time had passed since they’d faced Babcock on the mountaintop in Colorado. Here they all were, together once more, their fates drawn together as if by a powerful gravitational force, as if they were characters in a story that had already been written; all they had to do was act out the plot.” 

Questions of agency aside, this excerpt is typical of The Twelve’s heavy-handedness. Excepting sections at the very beginning and end of the text, Cronin’s prose is considerably less… considered than it was at the outset of his epic. Characters new and old are developed in broad strokes only; the plot progresses in frustrating fits and starts; the sense of tension prevalent in The Passage is practically absent. Book two of this trilogy just hasn’t the heart of the first part.

Credit to the author, then, that even in light of this laundry list of issues, The Twelve compels—to the point that I had a hard time putting it down. There exists an addictive quality to this increasingly Pez-esque apocalypse that means the majority of its excesses are easily overlooked. Cronin keeps us on our toes by shifting perspectives regularly, and however contrived the cliffhangers that end each chapter are—and they are—they do exactly what they’re supposed to, leaving the reader immediately eager for more.

There’s no shortage of action, either; set-up for the summer blockbuster this book could easily be, if Ridley Scott would only exercise his option. The Massacre of the Field is memorably horrendous, as is the bombastic attack on the Oil Road, and the explosive final showdown unfolds in exquisite slow motion.

Unlike The Passage, which made so much of so little—and so very well—The Twelve is at its best in the throes of such spectacle, and if in the periods between these superb set-pieces it seems shallow, rest assured that soon enough, there will be blood. And when it comes, you’ll understand exactly why this somewhat self-indulgent sequel is still worth reading.

In the beginning, The Twelve builds brilliantly, and the end, which is both “a beginning and an ending, standing adjacent but apart,” is excellent. Regrettably, the intermediary episodes are substantially less successful, and to make matters worse they represent the length of any normal novel. But do push on through. Think of these dreary doldrums as the dead calm before the perfect storm, because in spite of its meandering missteps, ultimately this isn’t an apocalypse you can afford to miss.


Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Speculative Scotsman. Sometimes he tweets about books, too.

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