Book Review: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Though I didn’t find myself too impressed with The Passage, the first in Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic vampire trilogy, I ended up reading the second novel in the series, The Twelve , since my hold on a library copy finally came through. (I requested it when it came out in October 2012, so that should give you an idea of how popular the series is!) But the all-too literary treatment of vampires that The Passage offered only continued in The Twelve, with an added dose of forced spirituality and unbelievable coincidences.

This all makes it sound like I hated The Twelve, which I didn’t. It’s a solid three-star read, thanks to Cronin’s ability to inject real fear and tension into the narrative, one or two interesting and pitiable characters, and the desire to know how the heck he is going to wrap this sprawling thing up. Mostly, I think I’m just a sucker for hype. But this series is so fawned over, to the point of garnering a movie deal and getting accolades from writers like Stephen King, that I can’t quite help but feel that I’m missing something.

In The Twelve, we are introduced to several timelines and groups of different characters. One thread runs during the initial spread of the virals, and follows a group of survivors as well as some of the military leadership responsible for the experiment that turned twelve death-row inmates into near-unstoppable, inhuman creatures. This was probably my favorite part of the book! We were denied much of the actual apocalypse in The Passage (instead seeing far before and far after), and this section makes up for that. It felt appropriately desolate and creepy and desperate, and Cronin pulls no punches in showing just how low humanity can sink. However, this section is all-too brief, and we are brought forward to various ‘future’ timelines, where we are reintroduced to characters from The Passage, including Peter, Alicia, Michael, and Amy as they try to live their live in the aftermath of the last book’s events, while still hunting down virals. These parts of the novel dragged for me due to a lot of mundanity or repetition, such as long traveling sequences.

The sheer amount of coincidence (or, as Cronin would have you believe, the machinations of a higher calling) that takes place in The Twelve is truly baffling.  Sure, the human population of the United States has been decimated, but does that really mean that every character we know has to be reunited at the same place, around the same time? At one point near the novel’s end, when yet another missing child is reunited with her long-lost father, I actually rolled my eyes. (I would have thrown my hands into the air in exasperation, but I was standing on the subway.) Be prepared to have to swallow a whole lot of coincidence, or to chalk everything up to “destiny,” as Amy, Greer, and many of the other characters intimate.

But the biggest issue with The Twelve is the lack of connection I felt to the characters, especially Amy. She is supposed to be the emotional core of these novels; the love between her and Wolgast is arguably the most powerful force in the world, more powerful even than the hold Zero and the Eleven have over their viral hordes. But Amy (and to some extent, Alicia, who is criminally misused in this book) just seems to become this cipher, an odd combination of an unbeatable action girl and unknowable yet all-knowing messiah. (And her relationship with Peter feels both random and slightly creepy.) The rest of the characters fade into tired archetypes: we have Sara, the downtrodden-but-not-broken Mother; Greer, the military-prisoner-turned-soldier-of-God; Lila, the bereaved-mother-living-in-a-fantasy-world, and on and on. One of the only interesting characters was Horace Guilder, but even his sub-plot becomes mired down in having him do evil things for evil’s sake, and just ends up spinning its wheels–evilly, of course.

Despite all of my critiques above, I imagine that I’ll read the final book in Cronin’s series, The City of Mirrors, out of morbid curiosity when it comes out next year. But I may soon be finished with arch, literary treatments of the sci-fi and fantasy genres written by those who are merely dabbling in them, as I almost always  find myself disappointed.

Fool me three times, shame on my reading habits.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “‘For you, hunting the Twelve isn’t an answer. It’s a question. Does anybody out there care? Are we worth saving?'”
Other Reviews: The New York Times, The GuardianThe Book Smugglers, Coffee and a Book Chick


4 Responses to “Book Review: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin”

  1. 1 Lesley May 10, 2013 at 1:30 am

    I felt the same way you do–disconnected–up till halfway through The Passage, at which point I threw up my hands and decided to give up on anything as old-fashioned as connecting with characters. You’re right, he does a good job at injecting the plot with tension + urgency, so I just let that carry me. I admittedly also skimmed like 75% of the descriptive passages? Maybe that helped. It would have been a looooooong night otherwise.

    I wasn’t as disappointed as you were, because I think it did what it was supposed to do as an Impossibly Hyped Novel; I expected it to be gripping in the moment but not to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it afterwards. At least until City of Mirrors comes out.

    • 2 tarynwanderer May 10, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Your first sentence gave me a good laugh!

      I wish I had been able to skim and ignore the passages bothering me, but once I sense a weakness in an author’s writing, it eventually becomes all I’m able to see. This is, admittedly, a personal flaw, but it kept me from just enjoying this book for what you identified it as–a “gripping in the moment,” “Impossibly Hyped Novel!”

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Lesley!

  2. 3 Jay May 14, 2013 at 6:01 am

    Hi Taryn,
    I’ve been in the undecided camp for a long time on whether or not I will read The Twelve. My reactions to The Passage were mixed and I guess I was disappointed with it overall (the hype led me to expect so much more). If I do read this one, I suspect it will be because the movies become a hit and I have to do one of those “I want to read the book before I see the movie” things…

  3. 4 John Anderson December 28, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I enjoyed the reviews given to these different books. Any chance that someone would be willing to review my short novel, A Stallion Free and Wild. It available on Kindle e-book. I am selling 1 or 2 a day and have had some decent reviews but none by professional reviewers. This is a story of a wild stallion that will surprise the reader in its ending.

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