REVIEW: Pure by Julianna Baggott
Dear Ms. Baggott,
With the buzz over The Hunger Games trilogy, YA dystopian novels are hotter than ever right now – even an infrequent YA reader like myself knows that. I’ll admit to being party to the general enthusiasm. I like dystopian novels in general (at least in theory; in practice I’m careful about which ones I read, because some of them are just too grim for me). But YA seems particularly suited to dystopian themes, perhaps because depressing subjects can be a little less so when seen through the eyes of the young, who may have more resiliency and less to lose than older protagonists. I also think that even at my age I retain a certain visceral thrill at the idea of being young and suddenly unconstrained by the rules that govern society (of course, the characters in these novels often face other, more difficult challenges). In addition to really liking The Hunger Games trilogy, several years ago I read and loved How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, which was a rather low-tech and straight-forward story with dystopian themes. So I’m always on the lookout for similar books.
Pure definitely had some similarity to The Hunger Games; less so to How I Live Now, in that the post-apocalyptic world of Pure is definitely more science-fictiony than those two books. Some of the creatures created by the apocalyptic event (called “the Detonations” in Pure) almost seem supernatural to me, though there’s no suggestion that they are not the natural result of what happened. It’s just that they seemed so fantastical to me and the science behind them is never explained, which leaves me wondering how they came to be. (The author’s note at the end suggests that she did do some research with nanotechnology experts, but since I didn’t read that until I was done with the book, it didn’t really help me.)
Anyway…Pure begins by introducing the reader to Pressia Belze, a 15-going-on-16-year-old (more on this in a moment). She lives with her grandfather in the burned-out husk of former barbershop. Some time (perhaps a decade) before, the Detonations occurred; the Detonations appear to have been some sort of bomb or bombs, as the name would suggest. Apparently similar in scale to an atomic bomb, the Detonations cause a specific and horrifying sort of damage. Many are killed, and the survivors exist in poverty and misery. Well, some of the survivors. An unspecified number had escaped before the Detonations to a planned artificial community called the Dome. Those within the Dome are safe from the Detonations and continue their lives in a rigidly controlled and sterile environment, waiting for the day that the Earth will be renewed and they can rejoin their brethren outside in the real world.
Pressia’s age is an issue because 16 year olds are compelled to report to the OSR, a sort of militia that controls what’s left of society. Children taken by the OSR are forced to either become OSR killers or used as target practice for other OSR recruits. Pressia and her grandfather must make a decision about whether to try to evade the OSR (which would mean certain death if she were caught) or not.
Meanwhile, within the Dome, a teenage boy named Partridge is beginning to awaken to some truths about his past. His father, Willux, is a high muckity-muck in Dome society, a scientist who was one of the chief architects of the Dome. Partridge’s mother supposedly died in the Detonations, and his older brother, the golden boy Sedge, committed suicide. Partridge is a disappointment to his father in part because he is resistant to “coding”, the genetic manipulation that the scientists within the Dome use to create super-soldiers.
The world of Pure feels artificial, or at least incomplete. It’s unclear what happened to the rest of the world, and it’s hard to get a sense of exactly how big the world the characters inhabit is. How big is the Dome – the size of a small city? A large city? Bigger? Smaller? I had no idea, and that bothered me. The scale of the world outside the Dome is similarly vague, and there is no mention of what happened to the rest of the world. (Come to think of it, was that ever addressed in The Hunger Games? Now that’s bothering me….)
The inauthenticity problem kept cropping up for me. One of the central conceits of Pure is that those left outside the Dome during the Detonations were altered by them in strange ways, usually involving having inanimate or animate objects fused to their bodies. In Pressia’s case, it’s a doll’s head in place of (or over? I was never clear on this) one of her hands. Her grandfather has a fan lodged in his throat. Another teen, Bradwell, has birds fused into his back, birds that somehow remain alive enough to occasionally flutter their wings, though they don’t seem to eat or poop or caw or do anything else that birds do. A third character has his younger brother fused to his back; in that case, the brother does eat, and talk, though he appears to be mentally retarded or brain-damaged.
The concept was intriguing, but it didn’t hold up to scrutiny much. I don’t know if my problem was that I’m too scientifically minded or not scientifically minded enough. I kept wondering, in the case of fusing with non-sentient objects, how the objects didn’t end up causing infections. In the case of, say, the birds on Bradwell’s back, I was even more confused. Were they somehow parasitically living off Bradwell? How would that work? Wouldn’t their life span be different from his, and if so, would their deaths effect his health? There is a suggestion at one point that the detonations were of some sort of weapon that changed the people and objects outside on a molecular level – at least that was how I understood it. But it was so beyond my understanding of the way things work that it almost seemed to be more magic than science involved. I couldn’t help but feel that the author was more moved by a cool-sounding concept – a doll head for a hand! birds that flutter their wings imbedded in one’s back! – than that she was really working from a well-thought out theory about the world she was creating. Again, maybe this is all explained by nanotechnology; I really wouldn’t know (that’s putting it mildly; my knowledge of nanotechnology begins and ends with my ability to spell the word). But I wished there was more detail – I even would’ve accepted an info dump – that put the strange mutations caused by the Detonations in some sort of context I could begin to understand.
As I mentioned, the Detonations happened about a decade before the book begins, but in some ways the time feels shorter than that. I would have expected that more of a civilization would have emerged; things on the outside are pretty chaotic, and everyone just seems to accept that. Now, it may be that there is manipulation from inside the Dome to keep things that way (I hope I’m not giving too much away by suggesting that the architects of the Dome aren’t exactly benevolent), but that’s just a guess; it’s not something that’s suggested in the text. There is a market of sorts that Pressia barters at, proving I guess that commerce is the hardest thing to kill, but no schools or organized workforce (beyond the OSR) seemed to exist. I can’t say I know how people would react after an apocalyptic event that destroyed society, but I feel like there would be some effort to approximate normalcy, even if it was a harrowing and miserable facsimile of it.
Pure definitely contains some not-so-subtle political messages – not ones I disagreed with, but they may bug some readers. Society was obviously somewhat troubled before the Detonations – there are mentions of the asylums and prisons being full, for one thing. The prevailing thought within in the Dome seems to be that a lack of “civility” and “purity” were the main problems that plagued society, but their definitions of such concepts are a little twisted. There’s a heavy dose of eugenics in the notion of being “pure”, though the term is also used by those on the outside to denote those within the Dome, who avoided being physically marred by the Detonations as apparently everyone outside was. Also, Dome society is depicted as pretty rigidly old-fashioned in regards to gender roles: the boys train to be soldiers and the girls are expected to see their highest calling as mothers.
In addition to being somewhat flummoxed by the scale of the society depicted in Pure, I was confused by the idea that those within the Dome would anxiously anticipate the day that they could rejoin the outside world – a world that supposedly would be reborn and renewed at some future point. Again, only going by my own hazy scientific understanding of the weapons used in the Detonations, and using the still-present manifestations of the damage they wrought – omnipresent ash and mutations – as a reference point, I wouldn’t think that rebirth and renewal would be happening in anyone’s lifetime, or their children’s, or their children’s children’s children’s, if you get my drift. What I’m saying is, I don’t really understand anyone within the Dome being emotionally invested in the day that Dome folk would once again walk in the sunshine, since it seemed like it could be hundreds and hundreds of years off.
That’s before you even get to the “meltlands” of destroyed neighborhoods, the periodic “death sprees”, and the dust monsters – terrifying (though again somewhat biologically improbable) creatures that rise up and devour unwary humans. Granted, those within the Dome don’t necessarily know the reality of life on the outside, though they know it’s not good (presumably, they are told just enough horror stories to discourage them from thinking of trying to get out and see for themselves). But still, it feels like this idea – that the Detonations were done to scrub the Earth of all its unsavory elements, allowing for a fresh start at some point in the future – is an interesting one that is just not that well thought out.
There’s a lot going on in Pure – a lot of the stuff that happens later in the book is probably too spoilery to even allude to. There are several significant characters besides Pressia and Partridge: Bradwell, a young man who has escaped the OSR’s notice and lives outside even the marginal society that exists outside; Lyda, a Dome girl whose involvement with Partridge ends up costing her a lot, but which also opens her eyes to the reality of life both in and outside; and El Capitan, an OSR commander who comes to have divided loyalties as the story progresses.
Pressia and Partridge, for all that they are the leads, aren’t really the characters who interested me the most in the story. For all the strangeness of the world, they feel like fairly conventional characters. So too was Bradwell. I actually found Lyda and El Capitan the most interesting. Lyda really has her world turned upside in Pure – actually, all the main characters do, with the possible exception of Bradwell. I’m not sure why I found her more interesting that Pressia – maybe because, having more, she gave up much more when she accepted that everything she knew was a lie. El Capitan is in some way’s Lyda’s opposite, though he also has been led to believe things about life in and outside the Dome that aren’t true. But rather than being kept in innocence, he’s been fashioned into something hard and cold – which makes the strong spark of humanity beneath the tough surface all the more appealing.
Something I should probably note: the story is told in first person present tense. I found this distracting at first but quickly got used to it. I do know that some readers are picky about such things, though.
Ultimately, Pure was a bit of a mish-mash for me: a lot of good ideas that felt like they were better in concept than execution, some characters that didn’t interest me very much and some that interested me a lot, and a plot that was crammed full. The last half or third (with all the spoilery developments) was fast-paced and kept me absorbed, and I’m interested enough to want to check out the next book in the series. My grade: B-.