Series: Pure #1
Author: Julianna Baggott
Published: 2 February 2012
Genre: YA, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, science fiction
Source: review copy from Tammy at Women24.com
Ten years after the Detonations that destroyed America, survivors breathe the ash of a damaged world and bear the terrible deformities and mutations that the nuclear bombs have left them with. Pressia lives with her grandfather in the remains of a barbershop, clinging to faint memories of the Before. She finds herself going on the run from the OSR, a militant group that forcibly recruits all teenagers from the age of 16. Like most other survivors, Pressia wishes she could live inside the Dome, the clean, safe haven where a few were lucky enough to be sheltered during the Detonations. The people of the Dome are ‘Pure’, untainted by burns and mutations.
Bradwell doesn’t share this dream about the Dome. He is a rebel who knows the truth – that the Dome’s creators are the ones responsible for the Detonations; that they used the bombs to ‘cleanse’ the earth so that they could one day emerge to rule a rejuvenated Earth.
Inside the Dome, Partridge enjoys the privileges of being a Pure, but at the cost of his freedom. His world is clean but tightly controlled and closely monitored, and he is subjected to mandatory genetic modification. His cold, calculating father is the leader of the Dome, while his loving mother supposedly died a martyr, trying to help ‘the wretches’ outside get to safety when the bombs hit. But Partridge knows that he is being lied to, that the stories he has been told about his world are propaganda. When he finds reasons to believe that his mother is still alive, he escapes from the Dome to find her.
His journey collides with Pressia’s and Bradwell’s, forming an uneasy trio of teenagers who are reluctant to trust each other but have to forge some kind of alliance if they expect to survive all the monsters that come after them. They puzzle through the clues that will lead them to the truth, heading out on a path that will either lead to revolution or the triumph of tyranny.
Pure surprised me. It’s grotesque and brutal, and I mean this in a good way. There was a point when YA dystopias sprang up like weeds, and, as with the YA fad of romances between humans and sexy mythical creatures who looked like humans, I imagined that the resulting dystopias would be implausibly glossy, with only the bare minimum of thin dystopian features written in to allow the authors to cash in on the trend. YA dystopias, I thought, were probably just the latest settings for otherwise conventional action-adventure-romances.
Pure has action and adventure, but it’s gritty and tragic. At first it seems like the usual love triangle is forming, but in fact there’s no real romance. And unlike most YA novels, many of the characters are not just physically imperfect but physically deformed. The Detonations had horrific effects to the people who were caught in the explosions. All of them were fused to nearby objects, plants, animals, or other people. Pressia was holding a doll, and her hand is now a doll’s-head fist, a relatively minor deformity. Bradwell has birds fused to his back, their beaks digging into his flesh, their wings fluttering. There are ‘Dusts’ – humans who fused with the earth and live underground, rising up to drag humans and other creatures down with them. There are ‘Beasts’, who fused with animals. ‘Groupies’ are two or more humans fused together.
And those are the least disturbing of the examples. There is a group of mothers fused to the children they clutched when the bombs went off. Stunted by their mothers’ bodies, the children will never grow up. Some women limp along with children joined at the hip; others have babies forever attached to their arms.
One character, known as El Capitan, has his younger brother (who was brain damaged in the Detonations) fused to his back. Unable to ever part, El Capitan knows that eventually one of them will be unable to take it anymore and will kill the other, causing the death of both.
There is no hope that future generations will be born Pure; all the changes will be passed on. The bombs that were set off were not standard nuclear weapons but “a cocktail of bombs” (44) with “nanotechnology to help speed up the recovery of the earth – nanotechnology that promotes the self-assembly of molecules” (45) and apparently allows creatures and objects to bond genetically. I have no idea whether this is actually possible, but it makes enough sense to me for the purposes of the story. Pure describes a world of human made monstrous. With creatures like Dusts and Beasts, it’s fair to ask whether they’re human at all. Characters like Pressia have to deal with the fact that the objects fused to them have become a part of their flesh. For example, Pressia once tried to cut the doll’s head off her hand, only to find that it bled as if she’d slit her wrist. And maybe, she admits, that’s exactly what she wanted to do.
Partridge isn’t happy either, but for very different reasons. The Dome is clean and safe to the point that life in there is sterile. Everything is controlled and everyone is closely monitored. All boys are given mandatory genetic enhancements to improve them physically, mentally, and make them more submissive. Partridge’s brother Sedge killed himself when he could no longer handle life in the Dome, an act that is considered noble because it helps keep weaknesses out of the gene pool.
Heavy stuff for YA, and there’s quite a lot of it – accounts of the trauma experienced during the Detonations, the suffering of the fused, the brutal things the characters are forced to do to survive and achieve their goals. But I’m not complaining. I liked this about the novel; it had a satisfying weight to it and the grotesquery did not feel gratuitous. However, I will say that the plot and characters seemed to lack something. It’s a good book, but not all that compelling. I admired many of the details in the world and the writing, but somehow the whole was less impressive than I expected. The plot needed a greater sense of urgency, and as the story progressed the characters became less interesting than they’d been at first.
Still, it’s an impressive creation. Or at least the parts that you see in the novel are impressive. The worldbuildng falters when you consider the backstory and that bloody American bias that I can’t believe we still find in stories with a supposedly global scope. Before the Detonations, American society had already become a dystopia defined by “the convolutions of church and state” and a return to traditional gender divides. Church attendance was monitored. The privileged lived in compounds protected by armed guards. Women were expected to belong to the ‘Feminine Feminists’ group, which enforced misogynistic gender roles under the guise of liberation. The whole regime was known as ‘The Return to Civility’. Those who didn’t comply were quietly carted off to asylums. The Dome is a continuation of this, especially with its ugly religious longing for purity and perfection.
This is all good and well; in fact I’d like to read a prequel that shows how this society came about. I’m wondering, for example, what happened with all the non-Christians. But more questions arise when considering the Detonations. They were not organised by the military or the government, but by a small group of elite scientists, so how did they get access to so much sophisticated nuclear weaponry? Surely that doesn’t go unnoticed by the authorities. And then, did they just bomb America, or the entire world? The former sounds highly unlikely and the latter seems impossible. So what happened to everyone else? Are there other Domes?
There are characters who should have this information, but don’t reveal any of it (although there are other reveals). Pressia and Partridge have been kept in the dark, but I’d expect them to at least ask some of these questions. I’m getting tired of books where anything that happens outside America isn’t considered worth more than a sentence or two. I can accept that we’re just being told the story of what happens in the USA; what I can’t accept is the way the majority of the world is ignored.
I hold out the hope that the sequel, Fuse (due in February 2013), will offer explanations. I have my reservations about Pure, but they’re outweighed by my enthusiasm for its stronger aspects. It delivers far more than I expected from this genre, particularly in it brutal post-apocalyptic world. The writing is strong, with a few moments where you have to pause to consider what you just read. The YA market could do with more of this.