The Twelve by Justin Cronin [A Review]

The Twelve rewards readers who read The Passage and wanted more. More complex and more entertaining, it will urge you on to the trilogy’s concluding novel.

Cover image of The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Note – Since The Twelve is the second part of a trilogy, this review contains spoilers with regard to the first part – The Passage.

It has been a few years since Peter Jaxon and others left the First Colony, risking the perils of being hunted by virals and other threats in post-virus America; and discovered that they are not alone in the world, far from it. What they have found has been as strange as it has been terrifying.

The Haven, which appeared to be a thriving human settlement turned out to have a dark secret. The survival of Haven citizens was paid for in blood sacrifices to Babcock – one of the original twelve virals whom all other virals serve and are descended from. In return, Babcock kept the human citizens safe from his horde.

Their experience of the Haven, their escape and success in luring Babcock to his destruction has confirmed a few of their theories about the virals. They function by a hive mind, controlled by their master. Kill the master and you kill their horde – Babcock’s death destroyed his army of virals as well. Each of the Twelve seem to have returned to the region of their origin and with files of the men the Twelve once were, there is a tantalising hope that they can turn hunter into hunted, locate and destroy each of the Twelve and end their plague.

Their adventure has come at a cost. Peter’s brother, Theo, and his partner, Mausami, are both dead. Their son, Caleb, though, survives. When Alicia Donadio is fatally wounded in battle, Peter takes the desperate step of infecting her with a vial of virus – a strain that was modified towards the end of Project Noah. Alicia survives and the virus has the effect of giving her increased strength and reflexes. In combination with the martial training she received from her step-father, Alicia could be said to have become the super soldier Project Noah set out to develop. Time will tell what other impacts the virus will have on her.

Peter and other survivors from the First Colony and the Haven find their way south, guided by the Texas Expeditionary Force, to the militarised state of Texas, probably the largest remaining human settlement in America, perhaps in the whole world.

But, in the years that have passed, they have made no progress in hunting down others of the Twelve. Alicia is often out on her own hunting virals.

On a warm September evening, many miles and weeks from home, Lieutenant Alicia Donadio – Alicia of Blades, the New Thing, adopted daughter of the great Niles Coffee and scout sniper of the Second Expeditionary Forces of the Army of the Republic of Texas, baptized and sworn – awakened to the taste of blood on the wind.

She was twenty-seven years old, five foot seven, solidly built in the shoulders and hips, red hair shorn close to her scalp. Her eyes, which had once been only blue, glowed with an orange hue, like twin coals. She travelled lightly, nothing wasted. Feet shod in sandals of cut canvas with treads on vulcanised rubber; denim trousers worn thin at the knees and seat; a cotton jersey with the sleeves cut away for speed. Crisscrossing her upper body she wore a pair of leather bandoliers with six steel blades ensheathed, her trademark; at her back, slung on a lanyard of sturdy hemp, her crossbow. A Browning .45 semiautomatic with a nine-shot magazine, her weapon of last resort, was holstered to her thigh.

Alicia believes she has a lead on one of the twelve – Julio Martinez – but her mission to execute him fails.

Amy, meanwhile, working at an orphanage in Kerrville, Texas, where Caleb lives, has begun receiving messages from an old friend. Telepathically connected to virals, Amy hears from Wolgast – the FBI agent who rescued her, who must now be a viral too, asking her to come to him.

But something else is out there. Strange and terrifying like the Haven, it is drawing the Twelve and their hunters together. Alicia, Amy, Peter and the rest will be lured by different threads towards a battle that will pale in comparison to their already harrowing experiences.

I said in my review of The Passage, the first novel in this trilogy, that you had to have faith in author Justin Cronin. That given the novel’s length, its fractured timeline, the amount it leaves unresolved; you need to believe Cronin has a plan. And I said I felt he did just enough in The Passage to make you feel safe. In The Twelve, however, he really delivers on that promise.

There were always signs of his larger vision. For example, excerpts from texts long after the events of the novels give the readers glimpses of how things might turn out. But these can easily turn out to be false flags of an author’s handle on things. What really helps are the different threads coming together; the sudden, dramatic and unexpected shifts in the plot; the return of old characters. That really helps keep the faith.

If The Passage was ‘fractured’ because it is a long novel told in two almost completely disconnected timelines, The Twelve risks being even more so. This is because, despite the linear introduction to the plot I give above, it has multiple timelines and the connections to the main plot can seem fine at best. Yet, Cronin does even better here than he does in The Passage. The other timeline stories and characters are interesting, compelling and enjoyable to read. This applies too to something else I said about The Passage – that it risks containing a lot of ‘filler’ – a lot of material that does not seem to do much for advancing the main plot or adding to characterisation. In this too, the extra was enjoyable and not burdensome to read.

So it was that Deputy Director Horace Guilder (were there any actual Directors anymore?) had found himself sitting before the Joint Chiefs (enough stars and bars around the table to start a Girl Scout troop) to offer his official assessment of the situation in Colorado. (Sorry, we made vampires; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) A full thirty seconds of dumbfounded silence ensued, everyone waiting to see who would speak next.

Let me see if I have you right, the chairman intoned. He leaned his folded hands over the table. Guilder felt a bead of sweat drop from his armpit to slither the length of his torso. You decided to reengineer and ancient virus that would transform a dozen death row inmates into indestructible monsters who live on blood, and you didn’t think to tell anybody about this?

Well, not exactly ‘decided’.

Another aspect where The Twelve exceeds The Passage is in its world-building. To be fair, much of The Passage’s two timelines were confined to present-day America and a future restricted to within the First Colony before expanding our vision to the Haven. In The Twelve there is much more for the characters to explore and realise, taking the reader with them. There is the panorama of dystopian America. There are the horrors of other human settlements where, like the Haven, humans are attempting to coexist with virals through servitude. There is the attempt at rebuilding something resembling a citizen-controlled state in Texas. Most of all, there is the thriving underground of this new state. An underground populated by gangsters, smugglers and mercenaries. Just the sort of place you might turn to for help if you are planning a mission that has to bypass citizen control.

The Passage made subtle use of the sentiment of new-millennium America, following 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, to give the reader a feeling of a culture where an apocalypse on the frontier would not come as a surprise. But, I think it would be a stretch to say that this was a theme of the novel rather than just an aspect to support the plot. In fact, I think The Passage and The Twelve are largely devoid of a larger message. While this may sound like a criticism, it depends on what you are reading for. For me, most of the time, I do want to read more ‘literary’ fiction that has meaning beyond the plot and characters. But, what I look for in books like the Passage Trilogy is a break from all that and to read something more for the enjoyment of the plot and characters.

In fact, given the state of American culture, before the events of the novel, Cronin has achieved something in telling a story of a fallen America and left it largely apolitical. You might argue against the realism of this take – that it would be more likely to see a post-apocalypse America with more religious extremism or tyranny. There are elements of that in Cronin’s take, but it is difficult to argue that he is using it to make a statement about the state of real-world America.

The Twelve is certainly a step up from The Passage and rewards readers who kept the faith. It is more complex while also being more entertaining and uses great imagination with its plot twists and world-creating. It leaves a lot for the third novel to live up to.

You can find our reviews of the other novels in the Passage Trilogy here.

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