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Book of the week: The Passage by Justin Cronin

One day the author's 9-year-old daughter dared him to write a novel about a girl who saves the world. He ended up launching a new vampire franchise that is as chillingly effective as the hype said it would be.

(Ballantine, 766 pages, $26)

“Justin Cronin was once a man,” said Lev Grossman in Time. Now he’s the author of a blockbuster. Previously Cronin, who taught college literature and had written two highly praised books of literary fiction, in no way seemed temperamentally equipped to launch a new vampire franchise. Then one day his 9-year-old daughter dared him to write a novel about a girl who saves the world, and his own world changed. A multiple-book contract and film deal arrived before the first manuscript was even done. Now his “magnificent beast” of a novel has arrived in a wave of early-summer publicity, and the book proves to be as chillingly effective as the hype had promised. “Like some power-mad scientist, Cronin has taken his literary gifts, and he has weaponized them.”

“The book’s main events occur approximately 100 years from today,” said Ed Taylor in The Buffalo News. It’s been 92 years since a government scientist injected 12 death-row inmates—and one 6-year-old girl—with a virus that unexpectedly turned the prisoners into vampires and hastened “the end of the world as we know it.” In post-apocalyptic California, a teenage girl wanders across a small colony of human survivors, and then leads them on an epic mission. Offering a review of this surefire blockbuster “is like critiquing the paint on the M1 tank crushing you under its treads.” But the novel “does what it does with insight and some style and honor.” It even boasts more than a few multisyllabic words.

Indeed, Cronin’s literary touches may turn off some readers looking for a pure beach read, said Todd VanDerWerff in The A.V. Club. “It takes almost 200 pages for the post-apocalyptic horror to really get going,” and the next 500 pages or so may have “too few vampires for vampire fans and too many of them for quality literature fans.” But The Passage is “paced oddly, not poorly,” and even if it never really surprises you, it “unleashes beautiful payoffs in its latter moments.” This is “popcorn” literature in its highest form. For readers who aren’t troubled about spending some of their summer hours in “the middle ground” between serious fiction and pulp—and who like vampires “of the monstrous, non-sexy variety”—it’s guaranteed entertainment.

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