The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin [A Review]

The survivors of the epic events and dark world of The Twelve believe they are now safe. The few that saved them – Peter, Michael, Alicia, Amy and others – have been through more than most have in a lifetime. But each in their own way know their greatest challenge awaits. The conclusion to The Passage Trilogy has a lot to live up to.

Note – since The City of Mirrors is the third part of The Passage Trilogy, this review contains spoilers with regards to the first two novels – The Passage and The Twelve.

After the fatal events in Iowa and the conclusion of The Twelve, the key participants have been living lives estranged from each other.

Peter Jaxon wakes up nursing a hangover. Every night he has vivid dreams of Amy and him living together on a farmstead. Amy though is dead. Now thirty years old, Peter has resigned from the Expeditionary to work full time and be a foster father to his nephew Caleb. Soon though, Peter is called into a meeting with the President and her staff.

It was a different world than the one Peter had known. The city walls went unmanned; the perimeter lights had gone out one by one and never been repaired; the gate hadn’t been shut in a decade. A whole generation had grown to adulthood thinking the virals were little more than exaggerated boogeymen in scary stories told by their elders, who, in the fashion of all old people since the dawn of time, believed theirs had been a vastly harder and more consequential life.

There has been no contact with a viral for three years and the influx of refugees from elsewhere has strained the capacity of the Republic of Texas. It is time to expand and let people move out and start new lives. The problem is the that the criminal underground will look to expand too. The government had a good understanding with the previous Underground leader, Tifty, but since his death their relationship is difficult under the new opportunistic leadership of Dunk. Peter is respected by the civilians, the Underground and the army; the government could use his help and the President wants Peter on board. Peter turns her down. But anyone who knows Peter knows he will be back.

Michael fisher has gone through a few transformations since he left the First Colony as a teenager. He is now living a solitary existence on his sailboat. The truth is Michael has a few theories, best kept to himself, that he wants to put to the test. The first is the belief that the waters around the continental Americas are mined and impassable. The thought was that after the original outbreak of the virus, other countries had rallied to contain its spread and that included laying offshore mines. But sailing increasing distances out towards the ocean, Michael has yet to encounter any mines and does not believe they exist. The question is, how does that change things?

After being caught in a violent storm, Michael comes across a container ship. Everyone aboard is long dead but he finds a newspaper from two years after the initial outbreak. It describes the US quarantine, a US government in exile in London, the spread of the virus outside the US with millions dying. Michael has to confront the horrible idea that there may be no one left in the outside world. The container ship may still be viable though. It would need years of repairs, fuel and a crew to ship it but it could be done. Michael, though, has neither the funds nor the manpower to do it alone. A plan, though, begins to form in his mind.

In a hut, out in the Red Zone, Lucius Greer also lives alone. He hunts to collect blood which he keeps in a freezer. When he has enough, he packs up and gets on his horse. He rides and then crosses over to an abandoned ship. There, locked in one of the ship’s holds, is Anthony Carter, the only one of the original twelve virals still alive. Greer lowers blood for him and moves to the next hold where he keeps Amy! He lowers the blood in but almost fails to close the hatch as she lunges at him ferociously, hammering at the closed hatch door. While both Anthony and Amy are still alive, their control of their human selves over the virus has weakened.

Greer’s only human contact is his occasional visits from Michael. Both of them agree that the viral threat is not over and another battle for survival is coming.

Perhaps no one is as traumatised from the events in Iowa as Alicia Donadio. Scarred and broken in more ways than one, she too is living alone out in the Red Zone. She too has a secret objective; to hunt down and destroy Zero, the viral who started this all. But what she finds in New York complicates her simple mission.

I was the dark flower of mankind, ordained since time’s beginning to destroy a world that had no God to love it.

Zero is far more human than his role in the destruction of humanity would suggest, and his story is all too human as well. Unaware that Anthony Carter is still alive, Zero plans to draw Amy out and destroy what remains of the human race.

You, Amy, have dared to love, as I once did. You are hopes deluded champion, as I am sworn to be its enemy. I am the voice, the hand, the pitiless agent of truth, which is the truth of nothing. We were, each of us, made by a madman; from his design we forked like roads in a dark wood. It has ever been thus, since the materials of life assembled and crawled from nature’s muck.

Your band approaches; the time grows sweeter by the hour. I know that he is with you, Amy. How could he fail to stand at your side, the man who made you human?

Come to me, Amy. Come to me, Peter.

Come to me, come to me, come to me.

The City of Mirrors is the epic conclusion of The Passage Trilogy. Series conclusions come with high expectations and is one reason, I believe, why so many leave fans disappointed. First parts have the advantage of creating appeal through their world-building and introductions to interesting characters. Second parts, in the interest of leaving things open for the third part to close, often contain drama, reversals, surprises. The third, therefore, has the difficult job of creating a satisfying ending without the advantages of the same appeals of the earlier parts.

There is a tiredness to the beginning of The City of Mirrors. Things left to finish off after the events of The Twelve may be smaller in number but are larger in import. The characters, though still young, have lived several lives of conflict, terror and loss and are damaged, broken and spent. It takes significant effort to pick themselves up for one last battle. The reader feels their pain, their reluctance, but also risk of not facing the growing, waiting danger.

In my reviews of The Passage and The Twelve, I have written of author Justin Cronin’s tendency to use a lot of what I ungenerously call ‘filler’ – a lot of story material that is not necessarily relevant to the plot. But, I’ve also said that unlike other authors and books I have read, Cronin does succeed in making this additional material interesting and enjoyable to read. In The City of Mirrors, this is taken to another level as he has to address the significant issue of the backstory of Zero – a character who has only been in the shadows of the previous novels and could not have been properly introduced until now.

It takes up a significant portion of The City of Mirrors but, again, Cronin has done a good job of keeping the reader interested and engaged throughout this long diversion from the main story. Elsewhere, these additional passages did more than colour in the characters for the reader. The differences and diversity of the characters add real richness to the novel and that richness feels earned and not pretentious.

It is fair to say I don’t read a lot of novels that contain action scenes. I don’t read a lot of crime, thrillers, horror, fantasy or science-fiction. So, it may be my inexperience speaking when I say that I did not find the action climax to this novel and the series to be well-done. Such passages are written to be read quickly but, like scenes of an action movie, also have to be somewhat convoluted as characters are chased and hide, duel and ambush, and where the location attributes have a function in the action as well. I appreciate it is difficult to do well, but the climax to these three novels was difficult to grasp at the first pass and I had to read some of it again.

Among the difficulties of a concluding novel is that it is hard to make the action climax tie everything up, if that is even possible. So, The City of Mirrors still has a long way to go and a long Epilogue after the story’s climax. This, too, is difficult to do well, but I thought it was one of the best parts of The City of Mirrors. As a detached observer, the reader has a different idea of what a satisfying ending is, to what the participants in the story might want. Cronin, though, succeeds in delivering both.

The Passage Trilogy is now the ninth book series I have read. It is somewhere in the middle of the pack. There are some I found more enjoyable and some less. Some I felt had more literary merit and some less. But, like The Lord of the Rings, The Passage succeeds because you feel the writer had a very well-thought-out plan from the outset and whatever diversions he took you on along the way, the reader could feel confident of being in safe hands and all would be delivered in the end.

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