Book Review: The Twelve – Justin Cronin

The Twelve – Justin Cronin

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Why do you read a book twice? Because you enjoyed it so much, because you need to study it in further detail or because it completely threw you the first time around? Well for The Twelve I re-read it for a combination of all these reasons. Not only have I read it twice, but I literally read it back to back, cover to cover. I’ll explain why later, but first here’s a synopsis…

The Twelve (2012) is the second part of a trilogy that Cronin started with The Passage – a book that I found in equal parts compelling and terrifying.  In The Passage, a government research project into prolonging human life unleashes a virus which turns its hosts into immortal vampirical creatures who have a taste for human blood. Skipping forward one hundred years and following the adventures of a surviving human colony we learn that the original twelve research subjects are connected to a family of the virals (beings infected with the virus), and that the way to destroy them is by killing the head of the family. However these original Twelve are also extremely powerful – capable of telepathy which they can use to influence humans. These ‘Twelve’ lend their name to the second book and are central to its plot.

The beginning of this novel briefly revisits two of the characters from The Passage, Alicia and Amy – both of whom are infected with the virus but haven’t turned into virals. Amy has a mental connection with the virals and seemingly immortal is now working in a nunnery – raising the children of those who have survived. Alicia was infected at the end of the last book the effects of which made her keenly tuned to the activities of the virals, as well as gain their strength and speed; she uses these powers to track them down and kill them. The novel then skips backwards to the outbreak of the plague and we discover some other survivors’ stories.  There is Danny, an autistic bus-driver – who unsure of what to do after the milk for his Lucky Charms runs out decides to return to a routine he knows and feels confident with – driving the school bus route. He picks up some other survivors and the narrative follows them as they ultimately end up at a military refugee camp.  We then meet Lawrence Grey –who was a janitor at the original research facility – who is disorientated when he wakes up at a motel looking significantly more youthful and attractive.  Whilst looking for supplies he is accosted by Lila, a pregnant woman who is acting like nothing unusual is happening despite the downfall of society around her. We suspect this is so she doesn’t have to deal with reality. She persuades Grey to help her paint a nursery for the baby and they become friends. However Grey is being tracked by the military – lead by Guilder, who has learnt that he has a degenerative disease and is willing to do anything to stay alive. When Lila and Grey are captured they are taken to the same military camp as the other survivors.

This section of the book was really captivating; it was interesting to have lots of different survivor’s stories happening at once and then all tying together at the military camp. There was a lot of subtle humour, as well as intimate moments in this section which as a reader made me really empathise with some characters. However, just as in the first book Cronin is leading us towards a massive plot twist. The military “refugee” camp is actually being used by the military as human bait for an army of virals who are approaching. Some of the characters escape, whereas others are killed when the military bomb the camp.

Time then advances in lurches until the story continues from the first novel (so roughly 100 years later). Alicia discovers a city policed by Guilder and “Red Eyes”. Guilder has discovered that consuming viral’s blood results in immortality, so keeps Grey chained up as a food supply for himself and his army.  He also keeps Lila fed with the blood of Grey; she still exists in a delusional state – spending her days locked up in a luxurious apartment she pretends that nothing has changed, having lost the baby she was carrying Guilder provides her with a constant stream of children to mother until she tires of them. Lila also proves to have an almost motherly control over the virals, who behave like favoured pets towards her – something which Guilder uses to his advantage. A whole city of people are kept underneath Guilder’s power; he views them as mechanisms to keep the city running and as disposable fodder for himself and his virals. After Alicia’s discovery of the city, an insurgent faction who identify themselves with “Sergio” as well as the team from the last novel work together to strike at the heart of Guilder’s structure.

I apologise – that was a frightfully long synopsis! However I feel like it was necessary, it isn’t one of those texts where you can provide a short summary without being extremely vague. And this is why I ended up reading it twice. The first time around, whilst I loved the new characters introduced – I felt really out of sync; I even mentioned it to a couple of people whilst reading it that I felt so confused because I was missing the characters from the first novel. I’m not sure if this tainted the rest of the book for me. However the second read through I approached with a more open mind and whilst it was a good read (Cronin sure does know how to get you emotionally invested with characters) I think that the structure aped the first book too closely. Also I found the second half confusing even after two reads. Break the book up into small sections, or take each chapter as it stands and they are good. Really bloody dark as well – which I love! However as a whole, for me, this book wasn’t as enjoyable as The Passage – but I will still be reading the final part of the trilogy!

Have any of you read Justin Cronin’s books? What do you think of them and do you have a favourite? As always I would love to hear your opinions!

Becqui