THE TWELVE, by Justin Cronin. Ballantine, 568 pp., $28.

In Justin Cronin's bestseller "The Passage," plagues of vampires swarmed the Earth, forming the "Twelve Viral Tribes" who laid "waste to every living thing," except for pockets of survivors, and Amy, "a child to stand against them." I saw the novel as a creation story -- a poetic post-apocalyptic tale, part supernatural thriller and part philosophical meditation on the nature of humanity. If "The Passage" is the trilogy's Genesis, then this second book, "The Twelve," is its Exodus, a complex narrative of flight and forgiveness, betrayal and hope.

But whereas "The Passage" set its philosophy, allegory and fictional artifice on the backbone of a terrific bloodcurdling thriller, the suspense of "The Twelve" is hobbled beneath a burden of too many time jumps and too many characters.

However, Cronin is a prophetic and passionate writer, and "The Twelve" is an undeniable and compelling epic, presenting a world of "emotional incontinence" where "the drive to kill" has become our nature, where "humanity [is] dissolving and taking its stories with it," and where "the journey [has] acquired its own meaning, independent of any destination." Time in this novel is distended, pulled apart and deliberately out of sync as Cronin boldly matches form and content.

Each jump in the narrative continues the stories of familiar characters from "The Passage," but in this book shifting forward to their descendants or turning backward to their ancestors. At significant points, Amy's story cuts into these beginnings, middles and endings.

Like the 12 original virals, Amy, the trilogy's main character, is a being "out of time." She's a kind of Miltonian rebel angel, cast out but not damned, or a Christ-like figure, fighting against the melding consciousness of the viral hordes as she's drawn toward the ultimate sacrifice she must make for humanity's sins.

Characters travel from the year zero to 100 years after the virals (AV), from "Denver's Last Stand" to a violent despotic Homeland ripe for revolution that satisfies its citizens' blood lust with gladiator fights against caged "Dracs" (one of the most riveting sections). Virals are a "force of undiluted nature," and yet to kill them it's necessary to do something profoundly human (no spoilers here).

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Then there are busloads of new characters (I kept the author's list of "Dramatis Personae" near) that I felt diluted the suspense across the book as a whole because I didn't and couldn't care about them all.

In his poem "In the Afterlife," Mark Strand poses the question: "When no one remembers, what is there?" Perhaps Cronin, who sets the question in the prologue to "The Twelve," is presenting an allegory about our world's afterlife, our ability to survive an apocalyptic event like 9/11. Will we rise above our base natures or "thus in blood it began" and in blood it will end?