The Passage is one of those books that I just had to read. Not only is it a post-apocalyptic novel with lots in common with the novel I'm occasionally working on, but several trusted people recommended it to me, and I couldn't resist all the buzz.
So I just finished reading it. It's nearly 800 pages, so it took me about a month. There were many sentences that I really liked. There were several stretches of pages that I really liked. Overall, however, it was only a second-base hit for me.
What I liked:
The writing style. Very readable and well-paced, at the sentence and paragraph level. Lots of good description, but no bogging down. (Although I have to add, there were some cliches and several editing errors, mainly words left out and using "wretch" several times when he meant "retch.")
Lots of inventive story elements. While the story does have a lot of familiar virus, vampire, and apocalypse elements, it has equally as much stuff that feels fresh and original.
Lots of tension, in spots. The book definitely keeps you reading to find out what happens. And a few times when the monsters were going to get the people, I couldn't put the book down until I found out what happened.
What I didn't like:
The length. The book is too long by at least 200 pages, and I got antsy during the second half, frequently checking how many pages I had left and feeling a little stuck. The part set 100 years after the virus in the California compound became somewhat tedious to me, until some refugees finally left. In general, I don't mind huge books; right before reading The Passage, I read the expanded version of Stephen King's The Stand, which is over 1,000 pages, and despite some of King's foibles and excesses as an author, I didn't want that one to end. (I think The Passage draws a lot of inspiration from The Stand, by the way, and Stephen King is one of the book's big proponents, although I don't agree it's quite as good as he claims it is.)
The characters. I don't think the characters are generally very strong. Some are better than others, but very often in this book I found myself getting confused between characters who are too similar or undifferentiated. Especially in the aforementioned compound section, I found characters confusing to keep track of because several of them are quite similar to each other, although later in the book some of the refugees become more developed characters.
Lack of plausibility. The book features a virus that turns people into vampires, but I think it's asking a bit much of a virus to have such a big effect on their bodies in such a short time. Some aspects of these "virals" are quite interesting, but on other levels they're just like any number of other monsters you can fairly easily imagine. And then the book has virus survivors using a lot of 100-year-old food and fuel and clothing and vehicles and equipment as if they're still fine, and lots of dead bodies are still lying around intact after 100 years.
The central figure. The book revolves around a little girl who receives a perfected form of the virus that makes her stay young, so she's still bouncing around the vampire-infested landscape 100 years after the military lost control of the virus and destroyed the world. The book starts with her sad story of living with a prostitute mom before the virus, and while this section is well written, I found it somewhat emotionally manipulative. And then she has this excessively sentimental relationship with an FBI agent who lost his own daughter and so makes this little girl his new daughter, emotionally. This all came across to me largely as formulaic stuff to help the book become a best-seller by playing on people's emotions, and there are some examples of this later in the book, too.
When the girl (finally) comes back on the scene later in the book, her powers and her role remain unclear to me, and the narrative sort of forgets her but then remembers her again as the refugees go forth. There's a lot of hype in the book about how important she is and central to humanity's long-term survival, but the book doesn't really show why, to my satisfaction. She's involved with a lot of telepathy and other powers, but it's not clear to me how or why she has these powers. Granted, this is the first book in a trilogy, and I assume the author will explain more in later books, but I didn't like how this girl was handled; I didn't feel like the author had full control over his story, in book one. (Even though book one wasn't a home run for me, I'm definitely interested enough to read the next two, by the way.)
The ending: I didn't like how the book wrapped up. One of the virals was given all these weird telepathic powers to affect people's dreams and stuff, and it seemed to be building up to some big climactic conflict with him, but then he and his mob of virals ("the Many") are killed way too easily. The virals are very dumb and are just like animals, by the way, with some observable instinctive behaviors but no real intelligence or communication possible, except with this one Babcock viral with the telepathic powers. There's a lot of mumbo-jumbo in this book that doesn't hold together very well.
The title: All during the book, I kept wondering what "The Passage" referred to. Near the end, the author makes an attempt to explain it, but it's just a few sentences that aren't very convincing, and the concept is never really developed.
I don't know, maybe I'm just getting harder to please as I get older, or maybe I'm becoming a less empathetic reader or something, but this book only half-worked for me. He has quite a few things that I also have in my book, but I thought of them on my own or was inspired by earlier stories, not this one. Anyway, if you like post-apocalyptic thrillers, you should definintely definitely check this out, and I think most people will like it better than I do.