"The Twelve" (Ballantine), by Justin Cronin
The middle book in a trilogy faces a striking challenge. It must match the interest and appeal created by the first book while advancing the story with enough surprises that readers will believe their investment of time and emotion will pay off in the final installment.
Justin Cronin's "The Twelve" walks a fine line in meeting that challenge. It returns us to a horrible, fascinating future dominated by vampirelike creatures called "virals," created by a military experiment gone wrong. As in "The Passage," published in 2010, Cronin presents multiple storylines, one as the virus takes hold and civilization falls apart and others a few generations later as the world tries to redefine what's normal.
Reading "The Twelve" without the benefit and background of the first book would be as unwise as venturing out at night, the prime feeding time for the virals. "The Passage" brilliantly creates a bloody dystopia, and its sequel cannot help but be a continuation, however welcome, instead of a revelation.
At first, a been-there, done-that quality tempers "The Twelve." As in the initial book, a familiar if exciting opening section follows a particular group of survivors as they try to cope with the first wave of the virus. Then, some eight decades later, battle-hardened veterans take on the core virals and their minions in an effort to end their reign over what had been the Midwest — an echo of the climax of the first book.
Yet "Passage" fans shouldn't be dismayed — not at all. At one point the story takes a turn that leaves such familiarities far behind. What remains in the forefront is the fine storytelling, particularly in its attention to character, that turned Cronin's first book into one of the year's best.
Whether Cronin can achieve an apocalyptic hat trick with the trilogy's final volume will leave readers anxious. It's going to be tough going — but then, what isn't in viral America?