The year is 2017. The USA is still embroiled in foreign military adventures, New Orleans has turned into a toxic wasteland and Blu-Ray has only just manged to become the dominant entertainment storage medium. A six-year-old girl, Amy Belafonte, is abandoned at a convent by her struggling mother. One of the nuns, Lacey, a former refugee from a war in Africa, realises that something is amiss with Amy, and that she is more than she first appears.

The United States government agrees. In the mountains of Colorado they have established Project Noah, an attempt to develop immortality ("So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years,") using twelve death row inmates as guinea pigs. The final stage of the experiment requires the use of a young child, so the directors send FBI Agent Wolgast to collect Amy. But the experiment has gone catastrophically wrong, and whilst the first twelve experimental subjects have indeed become immortal, they have also become something else, something that cannot be contained.

Ninety years later, a teenage girl arrives out of the blue at one of the last bastions of civilised humanity in the world, a fortified town in California. Her arrival triggers a dangerous cross-country journey back to the source of the infection, and a series of revelations about the true nature of the threat they face, and how to combat it.

The Passage is still months away from publication, but is already a major success story. The publishing rights for the book and its two sequels were sold for $3.5 million, whilst the film rights were purchased by Ridley Scott's company for a cool $1.5 million for the first book by itself. Based on the book, this is understandable: I have rarely read a book that screams "Blockbuster hit!" as loudly as The Passage. Unusually, however, the book combines its mass commercial appeal with an impressive intelligence and a much stronger writing style than might be expected from a big horror novel (the Stephen King cover quote helps as well). The fact that the 'main' publishers rather than their SF&F imprints are publishing the book is also a sign that they are taking this book very seriously.

The Passage is an evocative novel that borrows and combines styles from other sources to terrific effect. The first third of the novel, in which the virus is released and civilisation falls, is reminiscent of the brilliant opening half of Stephen King's The Stand (although, unlike The Stand, Cronin doesn't badly fumble the ending). We then move ninety years further on to a world of crumbling freeways, unstable overpasses and weed-choked ruins which is much more in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (albeit nowhere near as sparse). We then get some thrilling battle scenes between humans and 'virals' set in a shopping mall and the surrounding countryside which is much more in the vein of the Fallout computer games (and possibly Dawn of the Dead), whilst the idea of humanity cowering behind walls from the threat beyond recalls Carrie Ryan's recent novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth and its sequel. Yet the book never feels derivative, more playing with the tropes of the post-apocalyptic horror genre in interesting and original ways.

The novel has its own rhythm and cadence, based around rich descriptions of the environment and strong characterisation. The structure of the novel is also successful, with the first third forming an effective prologue to the remaining post-apocalyptic sequence. Initially this move appeared unwise, with Cronin abandoning the well-described situation and memorable characters of the opening of the book to start over from scratch, but the new situation and characters are just as effective, if not moreso (especially Alicia, a devastatingly effective viral hunter, and our main protagonist Peter). This does represent a shift in the pacing, with the first 250 pages rocketing by like a page-turning thriller, whilst the next sequence is more relaxed, but this is necessary to establish the new characters and situation. Then, once the journey into the unknown begins, the pacing and tension ratchet up again. In this latter sequence Cronin gives us a series of episodic adventures, such as the travellers stopping at another settlement built around a ruined prison where nothing is as it seems and a terror-filled journey across Las Vegas, which would make memorable horror novels by themselves, but here are merely smaller parts of a much greater whole.

The novel is but the first part of a trilogy, so whilst the book has definitive end-point and a series of compelling revelations about the setting and the world, there is also something of a cliffhanger ending which we will have to wait some time to see resolved (given it took the author over three years to write this first book, I assume the second is still a while off), which is just about the only negative thing about the book I can think of. Otherwise this is a page-turning, compulsive read.

The Passage (*****) is a superbly-written, well-paced and convincingly-characterised novel where the situation and characters remain in the imagination long after it is finished. This could be the start of something major indeed. The novel will be published on 8 June 2010 in the USA and on 24 June in the UK.