With “The City of Mirrors,” Justin Cronin brings his apocalyptic vampire/zombie/pandemic trilogy to a close…although that description, given this saga’s level of depth and resonance, feels borderline unfair.
In the wake of humanity’s near-extinction from disease outbreaks and predatory “virals,” Cronin’s characters have struggled to reconstruct a stable society. With the road-warrior tribalism of the immediately postapocalyptic period fading into memory, Cronin’s aging protagonists must find within themselves the strength to confront a resurgent horde of virals. Violence, sacrifice, and tragedy follow.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this plot sounds an awful lot like Stephen King’s “The Stand.” And it’s fair to say that here, the “main” plot doesn’t burn as fiercely as anything in “The Passage” or “The Twelve,” In the wake of those novels’ climactic final scenes, Cronin struggles to give his story the visceral kick it demands. The postapocalyptic story can’t help feeling a bit threadbare at this point – readers have spent hundreds of pages going over similar ground, and a few more outbreaks of brutality don’t do much to drive the narrative arc forward.
“The City of Mirrors” is at its best when it breaks storytelling conventions. About a third of the way in, there’s an extended flashback in which Cronin outlines his antagonist’s disquietingly sympathetic backstory – a tale of family schism, Ivy League arrogance, and forgone love that feels like a contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald tale. It’s so good that it could conceivably stand on its own as a breathtakingly beautiful novelette, and is easily the best part of the novel. Similarly, Cronin caps off his tome with an epilogue that captures and distills the trilogy’s themes down to their purest essence.
As was the case in previous installments, the real star of this series isn’t the plot, but Cronin’s gorgeously evocative prose: it’s descriptive without slipping into floridity, reflecting a grand storytelling tradition without being overpowered by it. In that sense, “The City of Mirrors” is a great achievement: readers weary of the workmanlike prose that often pervades the sci-fi genre will find much to love about Cronin’s trilogy.
Readers who (like me) have read the novels as they’ve released one-by-one over the years may find it hard to slip back into Cronin’s story, and newcomers will likely be hopelessly lost. In the wake of Cronin’s talented pen, however, it’s a largely painless journey – and indeed, a welcome return.
It doesn’t quite deliver on its predecessors’ ferocious novelty, but “The City of Mirrors” is certainly a cut above the rest of its genre.
*I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. No other compensation was provided.