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.
I 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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Published by Orion (UK) on June 16th 2016
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