Books Reviews

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: The Apocalypse Ends in a (Mostly) Satisfying Conclusion

All good things must come to an end, as the axiom goes, but not all good things come to a good ending. As impressive a feat as it is to pen one 600-plus page bestseller, authoring a trio –and getting each book right– deserves even higher praise. By the end of the final installment, the expectation is that the author will fulfill his or her end of the contract; that all storylines will be resolved and every promise will see payoff, though any look through a history of serial media will show that this is nearly impossible to do. Still, the most difficult task remains the most obvious one: the ending. After pulling readers along for any period of time, getting them emotionally invested in characters and plotlines, the ending has to work. If it doesn’t, it can easily tarnish the reputation of the series, imparting the dreaded sour taste upon the tongues of those the author worked tirelessly to appease.

The City of Mirrors, the final installment in Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy, begins in Texas immediately following the events of The Twelve. Most of the survivors from the last book have moved on from Iowa, and society seems to be reforming. After a twenty-year leap in time, Peter Jaxon finds himself President of the Texas Republic, spearheading the revitalization of humanity while simultaneously trying to forget what got him to that point. There has been no sign of Amy, or any viral, for that matter, since Iowa, but it is quickly revealed that things cannot stay that way for long.The Zero is calling his followers home, and it’s only a matter of time before the battle that has been hinted at for the last thousand pages comes to a boiling point. This far into the series, it’s fairly obvious what to expect, and it’s fairly obvious what you get. Cronin has been setting up a battle of cataclysmic proportions, and The City of Mirrors is his deliverance on that promise.

When done well, the ending novel of a series will bring to light just enough new material to surprise while doing most of its work in the patch-up department. The most interesting section of the novel, both stylistically and story wise, is a lengthy aside in which readers explore the psyche and troubled past of Dr. Timothy Fanning, whom readers will know from prior books as Zero. It’s an obvious move to add nuance to the good and evil dichotomy, painting the previously-mysterious villain with sympathetic colors. It feels like a reward in the best way, like the author is allowing his audience the chance to see the Great-and-Powerful-Oz before things come to an end.

When he does decide to get things going, Cronin wastes no time with filler. Tying up a story of this size takes a considerable amount of time itself, so it makes sense that he’d want things to be as concise as possible to avoid bloating. As the story moves, new twists are added to the viral mythology, including a couple of encounters with bodies of water that don’t quite make sense, and that’s not to mention the way Anthony Carter’s arc is resolved. . . Head scratching moments aside, the story takes no prisoners; beloved characters die in shocking fashion, old faces make appearances, and all things serve a purpose, something that can’t always be said of the other books.

To address the ending outright: It’s not bad. It follows, based on everything that was provided beforehand. It falters in pacing. The entire series has been building to dramatic crescendo; it was plain-as-day what was coming yet still I wanted more in execution. The climax could not take place on a bigger stage than it does, in the skylines of New York City, yet it feels small. Maybe it’s the distillation of the entire viral epidemic into a single being, or maybe it’s the rapidity with which the battle is handled, but things fall a bit flat. There is, and then there isn’t. The author giveth and the author taketh away. Blink and you’ll miss it. On a holistic level, the pre-epilogue ending works, and it’s hard to say with certainty what could have been done better. It is satisfying, but only that. One could even argue that it’s perfect for the story, but that doesn’t always translate into magical for the reader. It completes the story, but it denigrates the experience.

The tail end of a story may lose steam, but that should not detract from the trilogy as a whole. If we dissolve the physical confinements placed by each book, The Passage is the defining epic of the decade. In 2010, vampire stories were at the end of their run; Twilight was tired and The Walking Dead was ushering in a new era of zombie fiction. Post-apocalyptic tales still saturated the YA market and the silver screen, but they were, for the most part, mindless genre-fests that played heavily on the same tropes to make money. Beginning with The Passage and ending with The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin showed that subject can transcend genre, that the Cullen family would not be the defining face of Vampire literature any longer. There are reasons why stories like The Odyssey, The Stand, and Lonesome Dove hold cultural sway no matter the generation in which they were written; epic fiction captivates and teaches. It shows human nature at its barest, denuding us of any preconceived notions and reminding us what it means to be human. Add The Passage to one such list. Timeless and indelible, it’s a story we’ll return to again and again, gleaning new things every time.

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