Thursday, 2 June 2016

Book Review | The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

In life I was a scientist called Fanning...

...then, in a jungle in Bolivia, I died...

I died, and then I was brought back to life.

Prompted by a voice that lives in her blood, the fearsome warrior known as Alicia of Blades is drawn towards to one of the great cities of The Time Before. The ruined city of New York. Ruined but not empty. For this is the final refuge of Zero, the first and last of The Twelve. The one who must be destroyed if mankind is to have a future.

What she finds is not what she's expecting: a journey into the past, to find out how it all began, and an opponent at once deadlier and more human than she could ever have imagined.


The epic journey that began in The Passage finally comes full circle in The City of Mirrors, a proper doorstopper of a novel that satisfies somewhat in spite of its sheer size and a hell of a hammy bad guy.

I have such fond memories of the beginning of this trilogy, which paired an awesome and expansive apocalypse—one up there, in my estimation, with the end of the world in Swan Song and The Stand—with a truly heartbreaking tale of loss on the small scale. By the denouement of that book, I had no idea where the story as a whole was going to go, but I knew that I wanted to know. And then... well.

The Twelve wasn't terrible. It had a couple of a kick-ass action scenes, and some stirring slower moments that allowed Justin Cronin to explore the emotions of his vast cast of characters. But almost every other inch of that many-inched monolith of a novel felt like filler; texture at best and time-wasting at worst. In that respect, The City of Mirrors splits the difference. It doesn't meander as much as its messy predecessor did, but nor, on the back of such bloat, and with more of its own to add to the tally, can it recapture the magic of The Passage.

"Three years had passed since the liberation of the Homeland" (p.18) that ended The Twelve, and almost a hundred thousand souls now call the walled city of Kerrville, Texas home. Considering how catastrophic the survivors' situation seemed until recently, that's reason enough to be optimistic, never mind the fact that there hasn't been a single viral sighting since:
The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking, and Kerrville was the place where this new age would begin. So why did it seem so meager to [Peter], so frail? Why, standing on the dam of an otherwise encouraging summer morning, did he feel this inward shiver of misgiving? (p.15)
Perhaps because Peter—the leader of the resistance that took down the Twelve viral progenitors, and in turn the millions of vampires they had sired—has lost his sense of purpose. Or perhaps because "people had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall," (p.15) and he can't believe that the threat is actually at an end.

It might be that most of Kerrville's residents are itching to expand beyond the thick brick boundaries they've lived their entire lives behind, but there are others who agree with Peter; others who outright refuse to accept that the dracs are done for:
Something was coming; [he] could feel it. He knew it the same as he knew his own heartbeat, the wind of breath in his chest, the carriage of his bones. The long arc of human history was headed toward the hour of its final test. When this hour would come there was no knowing, but come it surely would, and it would be a time for warriors. For men like Lucius Greer. (p.18)
But even the likes of Lucius lose some of their certainty as time wears on without significant incident and the central figures of Cronin's trilogy get busy living. The silly so-and-sos settle down, marry off, get jobs and make a bunch of babies in what must be the most tedious section of said series—all the while, from the safety of his lair in the subway tunnels of the titular city of mirrors, an evil individual regards Kerrvile and the several settlements that spring up around its periphery with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, draws his plans against them.

Pardon me for paraphrasing, but the melodrama of H. G. Wells' text is wholly appropriate given the wilful wickedness of The City of Mirrors' villain. He's called Zero, as in patient zero—the first human to contract the virus that led to the Great Catastrophe—and I'm afraid Cronin's attempts to give his dark designs depth, to somehow humanise the monster that was once the man Timothy Fanning, only make him more ridiculous.

"Indulge me—memory is my method in all things, and the story has more bearing than you think," (p.232) the author appears to plead as dives deep into Fanning's past as a well-to-do Harvard student who tragically lost the lady he loved and summarily became so frustrated with his lot in life that he decided to lay waste to the whole of the human race:
It was absurd, all of it. What had [Amy] expected? Not this. Not this whirlwind of instantly changeable moods and thoughts. This man before her: there was something almost pathetic about him. (p.481)
When word of his continued existence eventually reaches the remains of civilisation, Alicia—who's pretty much been chilling with this pitiful villain since the events of The Twelve—Alicia urges (I kid you not) President Peter to take Zero seriously, declaring that "this is different. Fanning is different. He's been controlling everything from the start. The only reason we were able to kill the Twelve was because he let us. We're all pieces on a board to him," (p.357) is how she puts it, as if The City of Mirrors' tendencies toward the obvious weren't obvious enough.

I'm sorry to say that Cronin's handling of his antagonist is so very vapid that it serves to suck a lot of the life out of The City of Mirrors, particularly during the text's uneventful opening sections. Happily, once Zero is given leave to get on with the business of being evil, and the characters in Kerrville get a whiff of what's in the wind, everything about the book improves.

Whether this injection of tension and terror is too little, too late will depend, in the end, on your desire to see this series through, and whilst I won't spoil what follows, rest assured that if you do, the ending—excepting an extended epilogue that makes a overlong novel even longer—is excellent, there's a seismic set-piece that puts The Twelve's explosive showdown to shame, and you can expect something close to closure with respect to the handful of survivors who're still alive when all is said and done.

And so the saga that started with The Passage ends. Not with a bang, though bangs abound, or even a whimper, though Zero supplies several, but with a feeling of relief: relief that the last act turned out quite a bit better than expected; relief, relatedly, that this is "not merely a tale of suffering and loss, arrogance and death, but also one of hope and rebirth" (p.558); but first and foremost, for me at least, relief that this story is over.


 The City of Mirrors
by Justin Cronin

UK Publication: June 2016, Gollancz
US Publication: May 2016, Ballantine

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