Justin Cronin unleashes a wave of horror in The City of Mirrors, the third and final installment in his vampire trilogy. The dramatis personae return to have the rest of their stories told and a conclusion to the viral plague that has devastated humanity for over a hundred years. While they have defeated the infamous Twelve, the humans will now face off against the alpha vampire, the Father of the Twelve: Zero.
What I enjoy most about Cronin’s novels isn’t the supernatural aspect, though I enjoy that very much. It’s the ordinary events that stand in stark contrast to the horror that the world has become that stand out the most. Kerrville is the largest mortal community in North America. If there are other survivors, the reader is not introduced to them. Yet, even in a world where humans are hunted, there is jealousy and exasperation, business meetings and paperwork. Peter is happy enough building houses, but he wants his nephew, Caleb, to be proud of him, so he accepts a government position under President Victoria Sanchez.
The novel opens a few years after the epic finale of The Twelve. There have been no viral attacks in that time. Peter Jaxon, the Man of Days, has turned thirty. He spends his days building houses for the new residents of Kerrville, TX and his nights dreaming of Amy Bellafonte, the thirteenth viral and the Girl from Nowhere. Peter thought she was destroyed by the same blast that destroyed her twelve brothers, but doubts remain. In his dreams, he lives with Amy in cozy home, fishing and listening to her play the piano. In a way, Peter exists between and within two worlds, a theme that saturates Mirrors. His dreams occur outside of the regular time stream, an endless river of days bleeding into one another. Time seems to exist all at once.
More characters have made their way in this new, peaceful world. Sarah Wilson has become a doctor, her husband a librarian. They live as happily as they ever have, though Sarah frets over her brother, Michael Fisher, who spends an ever-increasing amount of time on a small boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Cronin has a way of weaving deep truths into beautiful sentences and he presents this talent through Sarah who comes to the realization that “The world was real and you were in it, a brief part but still a part, and if you were lucky, and maybe even if you weren’t, the things you’d done for love would be remembered.” Cronin sprinkles these keen insights throughout the novel. In the novel, love is portrayed as the one thing that makes us human, the thing that binds us to our humanity. Virals don’t love. They can’t remember who they were in their former lives and they can’t remember their loved ones. This is the key difference between the undead virals and the mortal humans. This allows Cronin to discuss two very different kinds of immortality: a natural kind and an unnatural kind. As Sarah points out, the things we do for love are remembered even after we’re gone. We live through our actions. Virals, obviously, don’t exhibit the healthy kind of immortality.
Sarah frets over Michael, but her brother disregards everything except this urge to explore. Each day takes him farther and farther from shore. Then he finds the Bergensfjord,, a ship from another time. Unlike the virals, this anachronism may ensure the survival of the human race. Like several other characters in the novel, fate has a tight hold of Michael. No one seems to be able to break free of their destinies: Michael must build a ship, Peter must lead Kerrville, Amy must destroy Zero, Zero must destroy humans. In this world, you can’t do whatever you want, but the world can do whatever it wants to you. Perhaps that is the true horror of this new reality.
The narrative then leaves the realm of humans and shifts to Zero.
This is the first major part where the novel’s narrative slows to a crawl. I’m not sure I needed to know so much about Zero’s origins. Dr. Timothy Fanning was a celebrated scientist in the world before the viral plague. He was Harvard-educated and while there, he became best friends with Jonas Lear and fell in love with Jonas’ girlfriend (and, later, wife), Liz Macomb. Liz suffers from a disease that may surface at any moment and it has become Jonas’ life mission to find a cure for death entirely. Eventually, Liz and Fanning begin an affair. Zero’s motivation for destroying the world is a rather disappointing cliche: a broken heart. Due to some mistiming Liz was never able to run away with Fanning. She succumbed to her illness and died alone. Then Fanning gets drunk and accidentally kills someone, a random event that seems contrived. While chance plays an important role in other parts of the novel, here it becomes the key device that moves the plot forward, which seems disingenuous for a writer of Cronin’s caliber. I had hoped for both a more interesting (and original) motivation for the novel’s ultimate villain and a better reason for how he became infected. In short, Zero wants to desolate the world because the world took Liz away from him.
Twenty years pass. Peter becomes president of Texas and is dealing with issues on all sides, particularly with the speedy growth of settlements around Kerrville and the lack of weapons. Then people start to go missing, and Peter is forced to come to terms with the viral return as Zero begins slowly building an undead army and topples the city of Kerrville. Conveniently enough, Michael has spent the last twenty years renovating the Bergensfjord. Kind of like Noah, but instead of water, there’s a deluge of teeth and blood. Most of the survivors make it onto the ship, but Peter, Michael, and Amy take Michael’s smaller boat to New York City for a showdown with Zero.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience of this story. The characters’ emotions are palpable and, at times, heartbreaking. Cronin masterfully uses this horror-scape of the post-apocalyptic world as a vehicle for discussing humanity, time, spirituality, and fate. It’s the heaviness of the last two, however, that disrupt the narrative’s pacing, which seems to be the biggest challenge with this story. Cronin’s vision of the afterlife is apparent from book one, but we spend a great deal of time thinking about it in book three. Perhaps that’s the intent. Mirrors is much more introspective and speculative about what happens after death than either of the first two, but this introspection breaks us away from the action. Then there are points where the action breaks up what should be an emotional moment. The previous novels handled the balance between action and emotion with a little more adroitness than what is seen in Mirrors. Despite the pacing issues and the various ways in which the narrative is disrupted, The City of Mirrors is one of the best novels of 2016 and probably the best vampire novel this side of the 20th century.
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