The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin fantasy book reviewsThe City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

The lengthy journey from Justin Cronin’s vampire apocalypse The Passage comes to a full conclusion (and maybe a bit more) in the third and final book, The City of Mirrors. If The Passage was absolutely great (and it really, really was), and the sequel The Twelve was good but not quite as, mostly due to it feeling much more its length than the first book did, then The City of Mirrors falls somewhere in between, though my guess is that some will react more negatively to a few of its elements than I did. It’s impossible to discuss this final book without spoilers for books one and two, so fair warning. Also, I’m going to assume you’ve read the first two books and so won’t other re-detailing characters and events.

The story focuses mostly on the hundred thousand strong city of Kerrville, Texas several years after the seeming victory against the virals at the end of The Twelve and just as the people are beginning to think about returning to normal lives. Or as Peter Jaxon muses:

People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall. Peter supposed this to be just a matter of time; without a single viral sighting in three years, drac or dopey, the pressure was mounting on the Civilian authority to open the gate. Among the populace… even the most hard-core doubters had begun to accept the idea that the threat was really over. Peter, of all people, should have been the first to agree… The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking, and Kerrville was the place where this new age would begin… Why, standing on the dam on an otherwise encouraging summer morning, did he feel this inward shiver of misgiving?

As one might imagine, Peter’s “misgiving” is well deserved, otherwise there’d not be much call for another 600-plus page book. The virals, it turns out, are not gone, and while we get hints of this early on, and then more than hints, one of the book’s biggest surprises is just how long it takes for them to really make much of an appearance. Cronin has never been shy about taking his time with characters at the expense of action, one of the things that separates this trilogy from the usual such tales, and the same holds true here.

So almost the first fifth of the book is sort of a quiet Western, detailing life in a frontier town as the reader is reintroduced to old characters (Peter, Lucius Greer, Sara, Michael, etc.) or introduced to new ones, often the children or spouses of the characters from the first two books. So we see Peter doing carpentry work, and Caleb heading off to his new homestead in one of the townships. We don’t get a barn raising, but we do get a Johnnycake delivery to the new neighbors, some discussion of farming, a general store, and the like. The reader falls into a nice rhythm of small-town life on the edge here, and the longer it goes on the more we’re lulled into a surface sense of security even as we grow more and more anxious knowing of course that it can’t last, that all these people moving out of the walled city to the outlying towns are going to have no defense when, not if, the virals return. The precarious nature of all this is nicely represented by a suspenseful set scene atop a roof during a repair job Peter is involved in (“falling” scenes in fact are a motif throughout the novel). At the end of that event Peter makes a life-swerving decision, and then we get a scene that sets the clock ticking on the virals’ return. And then.

Well, and then we veer from an old-time Western (the nicer, early domestic scenes, before all the shootin’ and hollerin’ and cattle rustlin’ starts) into a contemporary coming-of-age/doomed young love tale via Zero, aka Fanning, aka the first human being who caught the virus that led to the Twelve that led to the world-spanning viral plague that led to what will be known as The Great Catastrophe. Zero/Fanning is the villain of the trilogy, and the second fifth of the novel fills in his backstory, beginning with his departure for Harvard. There he’ll meet the love of his life, Liz, her boyfriend Jonas (who will become Fanning’s roommate and best friend and an integral player in the eventual release of the virus), and his first roommate Lucessi, who will have a major impact on the rest of Zero’s life. This section has a wholly different tone and voice than the prior segment, almost a 19th Century fiction feel to it thanks to Zero’s sometimes-florid prose, and Cronin takes a real risk both in taking such a lengthy digression and in giving his villain a motivation that many I’m guessing will find a bit wanting. I can see him getting lots of criticism for both the backstory itself and for the lengthy interruption, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a number of “Zero Havisham” jokes wondering where his moldering cake is. And some of that might be earned, but I actually loved this section and, while parts seemed a bit trite in their plotting, I’d say that’s at least partly the point. And also I’d say it has some of the most beautiful writing of the novel. But that’s all I’ll say so as to avoid spoilers.

From Fanning’s story we jump back into the Western, still somewhat quiet, but violence is now rearing its head, not from the virals yet but in both its motivation (those who suspect the virals are returning are making contingency plans) and in its sudden bloody violence it raises the suspense level and presages the far greater bloodbath, potentially, to come. Beyond the violence, other hints, some subtle others less so (one small flaw I thought was how some of these signs weren’t noticed) begin to show up that things are turning for the worse. Another small digression for some backstory, this time for Carter (a major figure from the first books), and then, at just about exactly the halfway point, the virals strike a town in the Midwest and then in short, speedy order, we see an attack on one of the Texas towns and then a massive siege. At this point the pace really picks up and we get several heart-racing, explosive action scenes.

I won’t say anything more about the rest of the book save to note that not all our characters will survive, and as he did in the first novel, Cronin shows a deft hand at moving back and forth between big-picture action and vividly intimate moments. He never lets the large action scenes drown out the individual characters he’s spent so much time crafting. He also doesn’t simply rely on those big action scenes alone for terror and suspense. While the big scenes are wonderfully cinematic (one even wonders at times if the trilogy having already been optioned for the movie rights drives some of the scenes), he’s just as willing to put one or two people into a small enclosed space and let a handful of predators rather than an entire army attempt to sniff them out, to just as great, if different, effect. This balancing ability joins with the deeply rich characterization, spot-on dialog and perfectly constructed prose to form the book’s major strengths.

I also liked the way Cronin wove several threads throughout the novel. Love and what we do for our children were two of the most obvious and most frequent. Those falling scenes I mentioned above are another. And, no surprise given the title, mirrors/reflections are alluded to on multiple occasions, and the explanation of their impact on the virals is both moving and can also be read as a metaphor for us non-virals as well, as can the references to cancer and of course the virals themselves.

The biggest weakness for me was that The City of Mirrors does feel its full length much more than The Passage did, a problem exacerbated by a surprisingly long epilogue that has its own issues (one being how surprisingly 21st century the portrayed society feels one near-extinction event and a thousand years later). I also confess that I didn’t much care for some of the sense of pre-destination or of a directed universe attached to a lot of this. It seemed both unnecessary and intrusive, but one’s mileage may vary on that. Just as some may respond more negatively to the slow opening and digressive nature of the first half of the novel, not to mention Fanning’s backstory details.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the first book of the trilogy, The Passage, is the strongest. And in fact, it could be happily read as a stand-alone for those who don’t want to venture beyond. But if books two and three fall somewhat short of the first book’s promise, the trilogy is still an always well-crafted, often gripping, often moving story filled with rich, deeply three-dimensional characters and beautiful passages of writing. It’s an undertaking for sure, and maybe Cronin could have shortened the, um, “passage” for us a bit without losing all that much, but it’s still a highly rewarding journey.

~Bill Capossere

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin fantasy book reviewsBill provides a thorough analysis of the final book in Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic vampire epic, but I’d like to add additional perspective from one who read all three volumes over the past 6 weeks. I originally read The Passage shortly after it was released, but wanted to run through the entire thing leading up to the release of trilogy’s conclusion, The City of Mirrors.

The difficulty of any sequel is that it lives its life, by its inherent nature, in the shadow of the world and characters created by its predecessor/s. It takes a special creative mind to build something new and cultivate something refreshing in the world of sequels.

Cronin was able to replicate his success in developing the heart of each book through the embedded novellas that built his backstories. I think back to the first third of The Passage, and the characters and relationships he created during the pre-outbreak events that included the kidnapping of Amy by Agent Brad Wolgast. In The Twelve, Cronin went back to the immediate post-outbreak era to develop the origination story of Alicia. Bill recaps the Tim Fanning backstory in his review, and I found this to be the heart and soul of The City of Mirrors.

These ‘origination’ tales kept the trilogy-arcing storylines new. Old characters had new spotlights shone on their motivations and moved the shadows of our prior knowledge to expose more three dimensional figures. New characters were introduced within a broader context we remembered from earlier stories and provided incremental detail to existing plotlines. The City of Mirrors spans 20 years during which the viral emergency seems to have abated. As Bill points out, the story becomes somewhat pastoral, sedate and downright “western.”

This allows for Cronin to extend the time frame of the tale while building a history, and more importantly, a platform for viral/savior mythology. And a wide platform it is. There are enough Messiah, Jesus, disciple, and Devil allusions to satisfy the most perfunctory English or Religion courses.

For me, the most satisfyingly beautiful element to The City of Mirrors is the epilogue that ties off the last remaining meaningful story thread — Amy’s fate. It takes place 1,000 years after the initial viral outbreak. In The Passage and The Twelve, Cronin established the future of humanity through epistolary-style chapters where journals and letters were quoted from the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period Center for the Study of Human Cultures and Conflicts; University of New South Wales, Indo-Australian Republic.

We know humanity survives, but we’ve only glimpsed the past from an anonymous future. The final 40 pages of The City of Mirrors takes us to that conference and a little beyond. Cronin has one final short story to leave us full and fulfilled, where the history, myth and religion of the future ties neatly with the past.

The City of Mirrors also has its moments of melodrama, predictability, and its share of deus ex machina. The huge Hollywood battle is predictable but enjoyably large and destructive. Hollywood’s special effects gurus have to be licking their chops at the thought of crafting the cataclysmic finale between the remaining (mostly) human survivors and Fanning’s slithering horde.

I enjoyed the journey that was the entirety of The Passage. The trilogy is gritty, full of violence and, at times, truly poignant warmth. In his finale, Cronin wraps up most storylines firmly enough — we know or can deduce where most of the persistent characters end up, be it living or dead. The City of Mirrors is long, but for those invested in the story of Peter Jaxon, Amy NLN, Michael the Circuit, et al, it’s well worth the time.

~Jason Golomb

Published May 24, 2016. You followed The Passage. You faced The Twelve. Now enter The City of Mirrors for the final reckoning. As the bestselling epic races to its breathtaking finale, Justin Cronin’s band of hardened survivors await the second coming of unspeakable darkness. The world we knew is gone. What world will rise in its place? The Twelve have been destroyed and the terrifying hundred-year reign of darkness that descended upon the world has ended. The survivors are stepping outside their walls, determined to build society anew—and daring to dream of a hopeful future. But far from them, in a dead metropolis, he waits: Zero. The First. Father of the Twelve. The anguish that shattered his human life haunts him, and the hatred spawned by his transformation burns bright. His fury will be quenched only when he destroys Amy—humanity’s only hope, the Girl from Nowhere who grew up to rise against him. One last time light and dark will clash, and at last Amy and her friends will know their fate.

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Jason Golomb

    JASON GOLOMB graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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