The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

Rating 9.7/10
Knowing when to break all the rules

A Recommended Book of the Month

Justin Cronin was an author I ran into by accident. One day in 2011 I was looking around for something to read and decided I ought to make an inroad on the huge pile of books I'd picked up at random on a whim from authors I'd not tried before. "A fun zombocalypse" was what I thought I was going to get, however if you're reading this review and have probably already read the first two volumes in the trilogy, you'll know that describing Justin Cronin as "a fun zombocalypse" is rather like describing A Christmas Carol as "a bit of a ghost story".
 
I absolutely devoured The Passage, loving every minute, picked up The Twelve as soon as it was available, and the only reason I didn't do the same with City of Mirrors is that I was rather busy getting married.
 
One thing which struck me forcibly about the book whose entire 35 or so hours I got through in less than four days, is just how many rules of good writing Cronin is able to break, and yet how little this matters. Stylistically for example, Cronin often freely expresses emotions, telling us what his characters feel. Usually this is a distinct no no, but in Cronin it's just one more element he weaves into his dark, richly painted canvas of words, as able to freely talk of love and hate and fear as he is of mountains or trees, the horror of virals or the steady march of time.

Another point is pacing. There is no question that the book right from its beginning is clearly building to a climax, an increasing tension that takes a good 25 hours to come to fruition, and yet nowhere, despite the fact we barely see a viral for most of the book did I feel I'd lost the plot at all simply because of how everything fitted together, indeed I was on tenterhooks waiting for the hammer to fall, and actually glad that certain characters could enjoy some peace before it did. As with previous volumes, City of Mirrors freely dances about in time, indeed Cronin does something which by rights should be death to any suspense and seemingly shows you where two characters will wind up in the very second chapter, quite aside from his thousand year after virus retrospectives which readers of his first two volumes will be familiar with. He then spends a significantly long section detailing the actually rather ordinary history of Zero, aka Fanning (a name which might or might not be a nod to one of Flag's aliases in Stephen King's The Stand), a section which reads almost like a character study and romance, and but for showing us exactly who Fanning is and what makes him tick and why exactly he would want to destroy the world, might be called a digression. And Yet, Fanning's history is as compelling as much of the rest of the book, indeed without this history Fanning would appear just another unremitting monster, but because of it Fanning becomes something else, a deeply flawed human being, albeit one with far too much power to enact his own destructive impulses on the world.

Cronin's style remains poetic, rhythmic and beautiful with a particular gift for depicting the wonder, as well as the horror of the world in slow, careful strokes, but never in so much detail as to feel ponderous.
 
In other passages (especially those surrounding Carter), Cronin leaps into a mystical, almost religious tone, detailing what might or might not be an afterlife, though again I am impressed with Cronin's light touch here, and how he leaves what exactly his characters are perceiving as a question up to the reader rather than tying his works to either a specific religious tradition or an entirely invented cosmology. Despite this ambiguity however, Cronin's style very much makes it feel both real and satisfying and part of the world he's creating, albeit a slightly more mysterious one.

Even getting down to the mechanical nuts and  bolts of his plot, Cronin is more than able to utilize ideas which in other hands would be clunkers in the extreme. The notion (familiar to anyone from the first book), that killing one of the initially infected virals such as The Twelve also takes out their hoard, an idea which seems straight out of Hollywood or the easy world of computer game mechanics, is one Cronin handles with delicacy, this is one novel where you know for a fact the author will not simply say "and with the defeat of the evil villain everything bad vanished and all was happy". In City of Mirrors Cronin continues this trend, for example rather quickly we're  introduced to the idea that certain virals can conveniently regain a form fairly similar to the traditional vampire, mostly human with protruding canines, which lets not only Fanning perform the menacing Dracula esc role, but is also an obvious and seemingly all too easy solution to Amy's transformation in The Twelve. And yet, I can't criticise Cronin for this, since the stunningly sinister way in which both transformations are written, the background he gives (even including a lovely description of the scientific Fanning testing out the phenomena), is just so deftly handled. The title itself, City of Mirrors, a title which surprised me in the extreme when I first heard it given it doesn't have the ambiguity of either of his first volumes and sounds like that of a fairly generic fantasy novel, is one whose actual explanation is both unique and distinctly well thought out.
 
The climax when it comes is more than satisfying, indeed it amazed me that after such a huge build-up Cronin is able to deliver absolutely, (if anything it's more devastating than I would've thought), and yet here again, Cronin's instinct is spot on. In other hands the climax might have been an overly long action fest or more grizzly than it needed to be, and yet while not shying away from any of the blood, death and violence, Cronin at the same time doesn't revel in them either, indeed while the climax is undoubtedly harrowing, a good portion of this again comes far more from what is happening to characters you are attached to than merely the deaths of a lot of red shirts. My one issue with the climax is that while when it comes it's undoubtedly epic enough, Cronin's specific focus on a few characters experiences does have the one drawback that it seems an entire apocalypse can happen without much by way of warning, and a huge population of virals can appear seemingly out of nowhere in fairly short order. While I had no problem with the idea that Fanning's "many", those he had converted were secreted away and waiting rather than roaming the world like those of The Twelve, the notion Cronin introduces that the virals were able to quickly convert a couple of hundred thousand people in a couple of days I found a little too convenient, indeed while in terms of character and overall pacing Cronin's work is faultless, some more mundane details on lines of communication or mounting suspicions of mass disappearances of fledgling communities would've been welcome. I also didn't like the suggestion that Fanning had "allowed" The Twelve to be defeated in the previous book, since while undoubtedly the confrontation with fanning was where the series has been heading from the beginning, Fanning had more than enough gravitas of his own without the slightly artificial "mastermind" ethos, plus since Fanning was not even present or much mentioned in The Twelve, this idea was entirely unnecessary and indeed struck me as the one instance where Cronin went a little too far in trying to tie all of his disparate plot elements together.
 
The other issue I had was with the last two hours of the book. Cronin gives us an idea of where at least two of the characters will end up at the start, and so I thought the book would conclude once the threat from Fanning is over, however Cronin then saw the need to jump forward for an epilogue set 1000 years after the virus. This is a device he's used previously, though before only in the form of minor synopses and historical perspectives, some of which (such as the detail about the fate of Theo at the end of the first novel), were used to build tension. This time however, Cronin jumps us to an entirely new character, Professor Logan, a historian investigating the events of a millennium before. This time, Cronin's digressions into Logan's life, his romance and his relationships felt excessive, given that I really didn't care about Logan at this point, and was far too involved with the story of the characters I'd followed for the past three books to really want to follow someone else in such a distant period, particularly since we don't really get much of an idea of what Logan's world is like. Also, it was in this section that Cronin's mythologizing of his principal cast members, something only hinted at in previous volumes, felt a little too excessive, mentioning a church dedicated to Amy and a book like The Bible detailing the events of the series. Above all, I can't forgive Cronin in this section for showing that effectively one character had died far sooner than another, undermining the potentially beautiful ending he'd written for both, and casually noting one of our principal character's who we'd grown to love for three novels had basically lived alone for several hundred years. Depressing to say the least and deeply unsatisfying, particularly because Cronin details that character's mourning for what had been lost.

Despite the rather over extended epilogue, I can say City of Mirrors was a completely awesome conclusion to the series. what makes Cronin's books work, and something which lifts them way above the mantle of "just a zombocalypse" is that they're books about people, and about the ways in which people grow and change and live their lives, virals or not. Cronin doesn't limit himself to stereotypes or certain sorts of characters (I applaud the fact that once again he features a disabled character who is far more well rounded than just her disability), he writes books about people., Epic in scope, poetic in style, tense and horrific in parts and in some places even mystical, but still books that are fundamentally about people.
 
In City of Mirrors we follow several characters over more than 20 years of time, quite aside from other histories and digressions. We see how Hollis, Sara, Michael and Alicia cope with the consequence of the harrowing events of The Twelve in their different ways. We see some of the next generation, including the life of Peter's son Caleb, and we see how major events and dark forces are not the result of ancient evil or diabolical plans, but simply people and the ways they hurt and love each other.

If you have already read the first two volumes, you probably need no encouragement to move on to the third. If not, you can be sure that this is one trilogy whose conclusion is in no way a let down, and seen as a whole, is a truly exceptional work, and one which I suspect will be joining The Lord of the Rings and the Duncton Chronicles on my frequent rereads list, quite astounding for something which I initially thought would be "a fun zombocalypse".

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