I put off reading this because of all the hype when it was published. It always aggravates me when a book comes out and is an automatic bestseller because the publishers have decided it will be so. Still, I was intrigued by the concept of a vampire dystopia even though both categories have been done to the ground. So perhaps going into it with a negative expectation helped warm me up immediately. But that alone could never have carried me through such a long work. I’ve read enough reviews to understand this book does not work for everyone but I was thoroughly absorbed by it and satisfied at the end, even though it set up for a sequel.
The story begins in the very near future, starting with the circumstances of the early childhood of one of the main characters. This section could easily be written by a Jodi Picoult or Jacquelyn Mitchard or any other mainstream author specializing in family drama and angst. In spite of that, I was immediately engaged, due to the writing and the knowledge that something epic would come out of it. Once the child, a young girl named Amy, is “discovered” abandoned, it becomes evident that she has some unique ability to bind people to her. Meanwhile, the army is conducting military experiments with death row inmates and for some reason, Amy’s name lands on their list of experimental subjects.
A sense of dread pervades the early parts but when the action takes off, the story does not disappoint. All of the cliches come to mind – late night page-turner, gripping, nail-biting etc. Then everyone gets run over by a truck. Ok, not exactly but time leaps forward almost 100 years. A new group of characters are introduced and I admit that it gave me a bit of a pause because it felt like starting a whole new book. But I soon was drawn into their situation and the smallness of the setting in opposition to the prior, more global story. Instead of moving all over the country (USA), the plot and action became as narrow as the lives of a small colony of survivors who have no idea what is going on outside their own walled off existence. Furthermore, their survival is still at constant risk, leaving few of them with any curiosity about the outside. They have adapted and adopted from a charter set up when the colony was built, evidently by FEMA during the later stages of the viral outbreak.
As for the vampire apocalypse the viral outbreak, stems from the escape of the original experimental subjects who have transformed into the ulitmate weapons the army had hoped for…except they are totally out of control, naturally. They are quickly dubbed vampires because of their bat-like tendencies (hanging upside down, clawed feet) and thirst for blood. But these vampires do not resemble contemporary romantic notions — you won’t find them on the covers of romance novels. They are hideous and violent, although possess supernatural speed and strength. They also multiply quickly, “taking up” one out of every ten victims. The idea of these creatures taking control of the country, possibly the world, is a whole lot easier to swallow than a bunch of slow-moving zombies shuffling around. While the “smokes” are not humanly intelligent, they’re not dumb or mindless either. They can survive the sun but in general, avoid light which is one of the few weaknesses that allow for survivors. They also prey on other creatures besides humans, enabling their population to continue even when humans become few and far between.
I’ve gone into detail about the vampire monsters because I think Justin Cronin did an exceptional job in creating unique beings in a genres that are so popular and exploited that it would seem impossible to come up with something original and fresh. Besides that, the novel has mythical and mystical themes that Cronin manages to pull off for the most part. I might have lost a little patience with the spiritual elements at times, but I admire an author who stretches a story to its fullest. Not every question gets answered by the end, but enough to satisfy me. I am looking forward to the next installment which will be out late this summer.