Review: City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin

The Passage was one of the very first books that I reviewed on this site – it felt as though I read it in one gulp, then returned to it feverishly to try it all over again.  For someone vehemently opposed to vampire-centric fiction, it was a true revelation.  Then came The Twelve which felt slightly weaker but still had potential.  And now the final instalment, The City of Mirrors.  I should have felt excited to receive the review copy but instead I just felt wary, and rightly so.  In a classic case of expectations overwhelming the artist, The City of Mirrors sends its characters out with a whimper rather than a bang.

As with The Twelve, the book opens with its ‘previously on …’ prologue, written in the style of the Bible.  For a trilogy where one of the main protagonists is called Peter, who leads his twelve companions into the wilderness to combat many foes, including the Twelve (original sources of vampiric infection), it is obvious that Cronin had some big plans.  The Biblical allusions are piled on heavily, with a kind of rebirth/redemption apparently offered for vampires who undergo full water immersion (baptism!) and then in the epilogue, one character mentions that their mother was a member of an Ammarian church (a follower of Amy).  The problem is that none of this is ever drawn together.

The problems with The City of Mirrors go back a long way.  Cronin never seems to have been quite sure who was supposed to be the protagonist – for a while it was Wolgast, someone I still feel was one of the strongest characters but who unfortunately was completely absent from this volume.  One could argue that the main character is Peter, but he always seemed slightly too bland.  The books suffered from his shift in allegiance from Alicia in The Passage to Amy, completely ignoring the tension that once existed between him and Sara.  The abrupt departure of Theo and Mausami after Book One didn’t help, meaning that Cronin feels less like a confident author than a frazzled director unable to control his cast.  I was reminded of the bewildering plot shifts in Grey’s Anatomy which tend to owe more to Shonda Rimes’ dictatorial management leading to unplanned employee turnover rather than logical narrative progression.

justin croninI think too that Cronin seemed to lose his nerve between Book One and Two and then again in Three.  In The Passage, the inhabitants of the Colony use the term ‘Flyers’ as a swear word – it’s a reference to the virals, the worst thing that they have ever seen.  But, they used it at the start of every sentence and it rapidly became very corny and was noted as irritating in more than a few reviews.  So when The Twelve began, one of the characters recommended to the other that they drop it.  Come The City of Mirrors, ‘flyers’ is only wheeled out twice and on both occasions, Cronin seems awkward about doing so.  That which had made his worldview so distinctive loses its luster and I could not avoid the sense that the author himself was enjoying it less too.  Given that this was a story which he originally started writing his daughter, that seemed incredibly sad.

I remember reading Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which won the Arthur C Clarke award, and in that, one of the characters makes a side swipe at The Passage, noting the obvious scientific impossibilities – namely the idea that after a century, one could walk up to an abandoned car, turn the key and that the engine would start working again and there would still be petrol in the tank.  While Michael may be clever, he is an engineer, not a magician.  I feel as though The Passage had a powerful enough narrative to buffet the reader past these hiccups but by this point, I was too lost and bogged down in all the disparate strands of the plot that the holes in logic or scientific fact bothered me far more.

Cronin is a startlingly adept writer, with particular flair for conjuring up engaging back stories for each of his characters.  But then he just wanders on to the next one, leaving me feeling as if I want to attract his attention somehow to remind him to go back and fix things.  The major problem for me was Amy – she is the Girl from Nowhere, Amy NLN (No Last Name).  We know the story of her poor foolish mother, who worked in a diner and got knocked up by a salesman, there was all this information given and I had been waiting for three books to have it resolved.  Amy was the *Magic Girl* but she was odd even before she was kidnapped by the government and given that vampire virus – but Cronin never bothered to explain why.

None of this would be frustrating if it seemed as if Cronin was trying to be concise or even leaving deliberate ellipses but he is not – we get what felt like an interminable Great-Gatsby-esque aside about the evolution of the relationship between Fanning and Lear – neither of whom are particularly interesting.  Yet again, when Cronin ‘wrapped it up’, it felt unfinished.  It was the same as in the case of Lila, Wolgast’s ex-wife – I had been unruffled by her absence in The Passage but felt she was left undeveloped when she was dispatched at the end of The Twelve.  Also, it is difficult to be certain of any resolution in this series given Cronin’s nervous uncertainty about making deaths final – so many of the characters make ‘miraculous returns’ that it is hard to believe in the characters’ emotions.  Ultimately it felt like a Doctor Who series finale – very clever technically but unfortunately a step too far for the credulity.

Most of the major characters disappointed me here – none of them were allowed an interesting arc of development.  Sara had survived the Homeland and her bond with her daughter had powered her through to save them both, but in this book, Kate was reduced to a walk-on role and Sara herself remained resolutely one-dimensional.  But instead, we got an apparently random second daughter who appeared from nowhere with a mysterious back story which was then also never revealed.  And I really liked Hollis and he never got to speak.  Vast tracts of time passed when the characters were separated but their relationships never progressed a jot.

What appealed to me from the beginning was that this was an attempt to do a science version of vampires – Cronin had theories about the hypothalamus and made a clear attempt to detach his creation from the myth.  The two subsequent novels seemed to undo all his good work, with the ‘red eyes’ and ‘dopeys’ in The Twelve and then Fanning and Amy in this book.  The result is neither fish nor foul.  The final vision of the human race showed us having learnt nothing, indistinguishable from our current selves – I responded to The Passage because it was a book so full of heart but I now finish the series feeling a sorrow at an ending not so much bad as blank.


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The City of Mirrors (The Passage, #3) by Justin Cronin
Published by Orion (UK) on June 16th 2016
Pages: 688
ISBN: 0752897896

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10 thoughts on “Review: City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin

  1. Damn! I am so disappointed to hear this. I had held off reading The Passage despite rave reviews on all sides because I do truly prefer reading a series of books all in one go (vs. waiting around for sequels to be released). And when reviews of The Twelve were mixed-to-negative, I kept my fingers crossed that the third one would turn it all around. Sounds like not. 🙁

    1. Oh I know – I feel so let down. Almost five years to finish with this? Such a disappointment after such a promising beginning. It’s got me thinking about sequels in general. It’s a bit disheartening to have it made so clear that stories do come from humans and sometimes humans don’t really think through where they’re going to end up. This is definitely a case of a story getting out of the author’s control. I do recommend the Passage though!

      1. > Almost five years to finish with this?

        Actually, no, though that’s a common misconception. Shortly after beginning the book Cronin received a cancer diagnosis. Chemo, surgery and recovery followed, taking at least a few years according to the interview he gave to The Guardian. He’s been assured the cancer is completely gone, thank goodness, and I hope has many more books in him. I agree with most of your review, but also feel that he’s a brilliant writer who brought me, and many more thousands of readers, a lot of pleasure over the years.

        1. Ah I was unaware of that – I’m really glad that he’s ok, it’s one of the absolute worst diseases (as with most of the world, I have lost more than one family member/ close friend to it). It’s a shame though that he must have felt under pressure to complete after an unavoidable hiatus like that – I often feel the same about the 5th Harry Potter book – JK Rowling was under pressure to produce it after a gap and similarly it isn’t up to the standard of the others. Sometimes fans need to learn to be patient.

  2. I struggled with The Passage but there was enough promise in it, that I had contemplated reading the sequel after I finished it. This post satisfies my curiosity about how it turned out. It’s too bad though – I know a lot of people like you really really enjoyed The Passage.

  3. I may be in the miniority here but I really didn’t like the ending of this book. I was actually really pissed off. I’ve invested so much time reading this trilogy and loving every minute(mostly), but City of Mirrors to me was so long winded in parts. I absolutely loved the Fanning backstory about his years at Harvard and how he became patient Zero. But I still have so many questions about Amy that bug me. And I would have liked to read more on Sara, Hollis, and the others when they got to the island. I feel cheated.

    1. You are by no means in the minority – I think this was an exceptionally disappointing book. The most interesting characters were completely abandoned and Amy was left unexplained. Such a shame after such a brilliant beginning.

  4. Oh thank God! I thought I was the only person in the universe who was disappointed with this book. Loved “The Passage” and unlike most reviewers also enjoyed “The Twelve”, but this book just annoyed me. It was like JC just didn’t know how to wind up the story and so we got a spiritual mish-mash where everything came about due to some cosmic plan, because that allows logic to be thrown out of the window. I was initially pleased to get some Lear/Fanning backstory till it dragged on…..and on…..and on. It was dreadfully dull and it appeared that the great apocalypse simply happened because some dumb guy didn’t get the fairy tail ending with the love of his life. Also, how did that lifeboat appear on the island if the freighter never ever got to the “sanctuary”. I though my initial misgivings might have lessened as I thought more about the story, but the opposite has happened.

    1. Exactly! I felt so disappointed that it all came down to some weird tussle between Lear and Fanning over a girl. I mean – really? After all that? I have rarely felt so much as if I wasted my time through a trilogy. The first book was just so well done – I genuinely think Cronin just didn’t know how to draw it together.

      Thanks for commenting – it’s good to share the pain!

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