The Twelve by Justin Cronin: A Gripping and Masterful Sequel Done Right


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Conventional book wisdom would have readers believe two things: 1) The book is always better than the movie, and 2) A sequel cannot be better than the book from which it stems. Obviously, there are some exceptions, but adages like these don’t develop from thin air–they’re based in something, whether it’s hundreds of anecdotes or thousands of online ratings. It often feels edgy to say that a sequel is better–and, most times, this simply isn’t the case. Once the novelty of a new world wears off, the difficulty of sustaining reader interest intensifies substantially, and many writers resort to gimmicks and cheap tricks to warrant revisiting a story’s characters again. Every so often, though, a sequel comes along that not only enhances enjoyment of the first book, but improves upon the flaws from the first story in nearly every conceivable way. The Twelve by Justin Cronin is one such tome– it masterfully continues the story where The Passage left off, hooking readers with its nonlinear narrative and indelible characters, and it does so in a much shorter timeframe. The Twelve is 200 pages thinner than its predecessor, forcing the story to move at a breakneck pace that whips readers along for the ride. Not a second is wasted, and every narrative move pays dividends by the story’s end. Everything that made the first book so memorable is still present and in the forefront–it’s just better on this second go around.

One of the greatest challenges in doing a *true* sequel well is making it feel like its own story. By nature, it has to be a continuation of the original, but if it feels too much like the original story, then it can read like an addendum instead. A common way to prevent this is to start the new novel in a spot former readers won’t recognize– either by introducing a new character or looking at the former narrative from a new perspective, and that’s exactly how The Twelve begins.

The first fourth of the story flashes back to Year Zero– the time in which the virals were systematically destroying the United States and reducing the population to the thousands– and weaves together the stories of two previously-minor characters with those of multiple new ones. As these new faces travel across the rural United States and slowly converge in Iowa, readers are keyed-in to more details about the viral plague, including the location of several population centers and the government’s efforts to combat the spread.

Just when it begins to feel like The Twelve isn’t a sequel at all, Cronin leaps back into “present” day, which takes place five years after The Passage. Things have changed quite a bit for the original cast as they, too, are spread thin–Peter and Alicia are still serving in the Army, while Sarah & Co were last seen in Roswell. Hunting the twelve viral hive-masters is still number one of everyone’s priority list, but things quickly go south. The missing payoff from the Year Zero section is so magnificent that it more than warrants the wait, and soon the story turns its focus from the evils of the virals to the evils of men, suggesting once again that humans are the true monsters. The Twelve takes the series even further in the literary direction, and by the time the novel closes, the virals become an afterthought. They’ll almost certainly be the major focus in the third book, but Cronin provides one last look at our evil selves in the meantime. (Seriously–you thought you hated Joffrey Baratheon? Give Horace Guilder a try.)

Though an argument can be made that the plot becomes more convoluted in this additional volume, sequels like these inherently justify such a thing, and it’s not even entirely true in this case anyway. The Twelve doesn’t have to spend as much time world-building as The Passage did, so it makes sense that it would manage to progress and complicate the story at an equal rate. There are even more characters to juggle in this novel than the last, but each character serves a clear purpose in terms of plot advancement. There is absolutely no filler in this book. After spending twenty pages with a character, it’s a safe bet that he or she will return down the line in grand fashion. Travel is also much more condensed in The Twelve, a move that is made possible by grounding readers in relative geographies and vivid histories early on. Reading about people moving from point a to point b was on of the more tedious parts of the series’ first installment, so this improvement is noted and needed.

As with the last novel, the way Cronin maneuvers his complex plot is nothing short of astounding. The Twelve contains two or three incredibly weighty storylines that all serve the overarching whole, and it isn’t afraid to abandon one in mid-action in favor of another. The pages won’t stop turning as readers will feel a compulsive need to find the next spot that a specific narrative thread continues, though by the time they do, abandoning the one they’re currently following becomes just as arduous. It’s frustrating as all hell having to leave Alicia knocked out and lying in a field, but figuring out how Amy plans to bust Greer out of military prison is just as important. These chapter breaks are, of course, a bit contrived, but I challenge any reader who feels put off by this to put the book down in spite. It’s impossible.

The one knock on this novel might just be that it loses itself in the moment. The central challenge the characters face is clear from the outset, and this issue does get resolved by the end, but in terms of the bigger picture, The Twelve does not move the needle much. The third novel in this series has a lot of work to do, because the second one’s emphasis on people and character prevented it from taking leaps in a forward direction. To say that this is a bad thing is not exactly correct– The Twelve is clearly better than its predecessor — but readers who want more indication of how the virals-against-humanity story ends may leave a little disappointed. That part of the story boils down to a singular event, and once it’s over, it rings a bit hollow. (It’s also a bit too similar to a pivotal point in the last book, but that’s not a deal-breaker.) The true beauty of The Twelve is found in the deep, impactful relationships among its cast of characters, and that is more than enough to support the story.

If the author was cutting his teeth in (and I use this term loosely) genre fiction in The Passage, he pulled off the rare feat of mastering it by novel number two. The narrative is condensed but moves more, the characters are numerous but more developed, and the events of the novel are equally as compelling as they were last time. By building on what worked last time and stripping away what didn’t, The Twelve is more polished, takes more risks, and pay bigger returns than novel number one. A true 2.0, fans of The Passage are doing themselves a disservice by not diving into this one immediately upon completion of the initial entry. It’s well worth the time, and one can only pray that the next installment, The City of Mirrors, comes anywhere close to this level of excellence.

Next up: Pet Sematary by Stephen King, followed by a book and movie review next week.

Also, be on the lookout for a major announcement from me soon. Nothing serious, but it does pertain to the future of this website.

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