Review of Pure by Julianna Baggott

Title: Pure
Series: Pure #1
Author: 
Julianna Baggott
Published: 
2 February 2012
Publisher: 
Headline
Genre: 
YA, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, science fiction
Source: 
review copy from Tammy at Women24.com
Rating: 
7/10

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.

 

Buy a copy of Pure at The Book Depository

Review of Breed by Chase Novak

Title: Breed
Author: Chase Novak (pseudonym for Scott Spencer)
Published: 
04 September 2012
Publisher: 
Mulholland Books
Genre: 
horror, science fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
6/10

Alex and Leslie Twisden have a lifestyle that most can only dream of. He is old money, the descendant of a prestigious New York family that has blessed him with a life defined by wealth, and a magnificent house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When he married the younger, beautiful Leslie, many thought of her as his trophy wife, but in truth they were deeply in love. They have successful jobs, a luxurious lifestyle, and are utterly happy together. The only flaw in this otherwise perfect picture is the absence of a child. With his grand his family legacy, Alex is determined to produce an heir, but the couple cannot conceive and Alex is too old-fashioned to consider adoption. They spend a fortune on endless fertility treatments that yield nothing but wasted time and emotional exhaustion.

Leslie is on the verge of giving up when they learn about a dubious and ludicrously expensive treatment from a doctor in Slovenia. The desperate couple blindly submit themselves to the doctor’s painful treatment, which involves injecting them with a cocktail of animal DNA. Leslie falls pregnant shortly after, but the couple’s happiness is marred as the horrific consequences of the treatment become manifest.

Ten years later, the Twisden twins, Adam and Alice, live in fear of their parents. They are forbidden from speaking to others about their strange home life, and every night they are locked into their bedrooms. Adam spies on his parents with a baby monitor, and hears disturbing sounds and unsettling conversations from their bedroom. Terrified, he and Alice run away from home, only to have their ferociously loving parents hunt them down.

 

Breed is one of those horror novels that are conceptually scary, rather than genuinely unsettling. I had mixed feelings, as there were some things that I really liked, while other aspects were a bit flat. I’ll start with the good stuff. I liked Alex and Leslie. I liked the fact that, whatever their problems (and they have some really bizarre, repulsive problems), they love each other and they’re happy together. This is true throughout the book.

Aside from a few creepy moments, I didn’t find the book very scary, but I loved the idea behind it. Alex and Leslie are essentially turned into violent animal/human hybrids, making it increasingly difficult for them to function in public. Everything in their lives starts to break down – appearance, work, their magnificent home. Alex’s house is filled with valuable antiques that get sold off as the couple struggle to make the kind of money they’ve become accustomed to. They lose their grasp on language and memory, and Leslie is particularly bad. At the start of the novel she works in publishing; later, she can’t remember common words or how to use them, and her speech is peppered with malapropisms.

Some of the most disturbing changes are in the couple’s feeding habits and sex life. Adam and Alice have long stopped getting attached to any pets that enter the house, and the sounds that come from Alex and Leslie’s bedroom make it clear that their passion for each other is now suffused with brutality.

And yet, you have to admit that the Twisdens are loving parents and spouses. This is not a simplistic descent into evil and violence. The Twisdens are all forced to fight an internal battle between instinct, emotion, and reason. Alex and Leslie adore their children; that much is obvious. However, they can’t help the fact that they are also longing to eat them alive. The animal DNA in their blood makes it impossible for them to shake off this urge; they can only fight the longing to give into it. Ironically, the only fertility treatment that worked is the one that makes them want to murder their kids.

Adam and Alice know their parents will eventually kill them, but they have to fight against an instinctual urge to trust and obey them. They love their parents, and want to be with them, but arm themselves with small weapons in case of an attack. And although the children are the victims here, you can’t ignore the fact that they share their parents’ bizarre genetic makeup. At age ten, they already show signs of a beastly nature. What will they be when they grow up?

All these contrasts and contradictions lend a sense of pathos that I haven’t often found in horror, where the emphasis on gore and terror typically leaves little opportunity to feel truly upset about the people involved and the conflicts they’re struggling with. Alex and Leslie were my favourite characters, not just because they were savage, but because they wanted to be good and they made a wonderful (if weird) couple. At the same time, their savagery is so vile that you can’t ever ignore it. I always appreciate an author’s ability to make me tussle with conflicting feelings.

But now the bad stuff. I thought Adam and Alice were rather flat characters in contrast to their parents. They naturally won my sympathies – you have to feel sorry for ten-year olds being hunted down by their cannibal parents – but I never cared for them all that much.

I also didn’t like the wild children the twins encounter when they run away. Apparently there are plenty of wealthy, barren New York couples who turned to the Slovenian doctor, and their kids now run around in some kind of feral gang (if they don’t get eaten, that is). All these additional characters seemed to dilute the plot. Theoretically, it’s more horrific that so many couples are turning themselves into violent animals just so they can breed, but in practice it suddenly seems too common to be all that devastating.  I also think the book could have been much more tense if the story was focused on the Twisdens and the few other supporting characters, with perhaps one other family to give us an idea of how much worse things could get. Instead, the wild boys help the twins escape when they can, and the chase feels less threatening. Finally, some of the plot strands were left hanging, which is always annoying and unsatisfying.

So once, again, I find myself with a horror novel that didn’t really scare me. On the bright side, I’d much rather read a novel like Breed, which is a decent book in itself, than the more stereotypical kind of horror novel, which is pulp drenched in gore. Breed has it’s share of bloody violence, but Novak uses it sparingly, so that it shocks without feeling gratuitous or cheap. I give the novel a solid 6/10, and the search for terrifying horror continues.

 

Buy Breed at The Book Depository