Lately a certain overexposed plasma-sucking creature has so dominated popular culture — and hence induces eye rolling among large swaths of the population — that I’m loath to even mention its name. It starts with v and rhymes with campfire. Okay, fine: Justin Cronin’s epic postapocalyptic adventure trilogy — which kicked off with 2010’s blockbuster The Passage and continues with second installment The Twelve — is about vampires.
But wait! These dracs are a different beast from the pasty-faced blood-draining lovebirds you’re now picturing with some degree of fondness or disgust. They’re vicious and animalistic, armed with limb-ripping teeth and claws and driven by an insatiable thirst. They were born of a military-cultivated virus, which the government injects into 12 (note that number) death-row inmates–turned–test subjects in the first book. Things predictably spiral out of control, and the virus — oops! — destroys modern civilization. But pockets of humanity remain, and Cronin’s novels trace both the onset of the disaster and the efforts of survivors almost 100 years later to fight back.
Rather than jumping in where The Passage ended, Cronin spends most of The Twelve‘s early pages back in ”year zero,” when the vamps decimated North America. He introduces some soon-to-be-significant new characters and expands his hellish vision of post-virus America. But eventually we’re in the year ”97 A.V.,” reunited with Passage characters like Amy, Alicia, and Peter as they scale up their war with the first book’s dark forces and confront fresh enemies.
Along the way, Cronin solves old mysteries and concocts a few new ones, crafts some genuinely scary scenes, and deftly pushes a complicated array of characters and mythologies toward an easily foreseeable but rousing climax. Does it matter that not everything makes sense? That the plot sometimes feels contrived and tinges of spirituality seem a little grandiose? Not really. The Twelve doesn’t always match The Passage‘s dexterous storytelling and almost-plausible world creation, but it’s still an unnerving and mostly satisfying tale of existential-threat disaster and its harrowing aftermath. B+