TheBookSmugglers's Reviews > Pure

Pure by Julianna Baggott
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Nov 07, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: apocalypse-dystopia-keepers, notable-reads-of-2012

Originally reviewed on The Book Smugglers

After the Detonations scarred the world, the sky rained ash; its former blue clotted with dust and grime. Only the charred rubble of civilization remained, with homes, neighborhoods and cities laid to waste in the aftermath. People - those burned, scarred people that survived - have been exposed to strange new kind of radiation, fusing them with objects they were carrying at the time of the blasts: a doll's head; a plastic fan. Or, in the case of the less fortunate, people fused with buildings and earth, with animals, or most horrifically, with other people - brothers together, mothers and their babies, forevermore entwined.

A week after the Detonations, those surviving wretches struggled to find water to drink, food to eat, and watched with envy the beacon of light that represented the Dome and the lucky souls inside that escaped the bombs and their aftermath. A week after the Detonations, pamphlets fell from the sky with a message from those within the protective sanctuary of the Dome:

We know you are here, our brothers and sisters.
We will, one day, emerge from the Dome to join you in peace.
For now, we watch from afar, benevolently.


Pressia Belze was only a child at the time, and though she remembers little of her life before, she remembers this message of fluttering papers from the Dome. The years pass, and Pressia is on the eve of her sixteenth birthday - a death sentence for any child, as sixteen is the age the OSR (once Operation Search and Rescue, now a militia bent on revolution and retaking the Dome) comes for children and turns them into soldiers or live bait for target practice. Pressia's grandfather, the only person she has in the world, tries to protect her from the inevitable, but Pressia knows it is only a matter of time before she is found, or her grandfather dies and she is left utterly alone.

A lifetime away in the cool, mechanical protection of the Dome, Partridge struggles with the overbearing dominance of his father, the commander of all who live in the Dome. Torn by the memories of his mother, who disappeared during the Detonations, and the death of his older brother Sedge, who killed himself, Partridge lives each day knowing that he cannot please his father, and that he might not care to please him in the first place. When his father tells Partridge that he is resistant to the coding treatments that are necessary for a good soldier, and to remedy the deficiency he will be upping Partridge's sessions, Partridge knows it is time for him to leave the Dome and make a stake for the outside world to try and find his mother - who might just be alive somewhere outside.

Pressia and Partridge's fates are intertwined, and as they search for answers, their paths will cross, and life will never be the same.

Pure, the first dystopian/apocalyptic style novel from established author Julianna Baggott is a harrowing, heart-wrenching book that effectively straddles the line between YA and Adult, as well as genre and general fiction - no small feat! As with Justin Cronin's The Passage, Pure is a novel that casts a wide net and should find a broad audience from both the speculative fiction ranks, and those who might not consider themselves genre readers.

For me, the strongest aspects of Pure lie with the visual, visceral descriptiveness of the world, the history of this future earth, and the people that inhabit the wastes. These characters are fused with objects: the earth, animals, or horrifically, with other people (because, really, if bombs went off and you were with loved ones, you'd probably try to grab them, too). The horror stories that are told with each character's "I Remember" arc (a game that children play in which the currency is personal recollection) are harrowing realities - from Pressia, with her doll's head fused to her hand, to the boy Bradwell with live birds living on his back watching helplessly as the family around him are fused to inanimate objects and die slow, painful deaths. While the premise of the novel is, from a scientific standpoint, sketchy, the reality of the fusions and the cause of the Detonations, rooted in human failings and motivations, are entirely believable. I like that explanation and some scientific background is given to the rationale of these Detonations, though it does require some willing suspension of disbelief. The ensuing human/animal wasteland, the separation between the Dome and outside world by way of physical designation is horrifying, but brilliant in its absolution and it's easy to see how mankind might have willfully inflicted the apocalypse upon itself in a misguided attempt to establish a new world order.

All of this, so far, probably sounds familiar to readers of SF and apocalypse/dystopia novels - and to a certain extent, this is true. There isn't much groundbreaking in the tropes used by Pure, but I think the idea of fusions combined with the writing style and characterization are what truly set the book apart from the fray. From a writing standpoint, Pure is sparse yet lyrical, with plenty of attention devoted to world building and setting. Told in an alternating third-person character narrative, encompassing Pressia, Partridge, a Dome girl named Lyda, and an OSR member called El Capitan, Pure plays on a number of tropes that are familiar in the SF/F dystopian/apocalyptic subgenre today. Indeed, with its teenage protagonists, it is interesting that Pure is billed as an adult novel, as it does have firm grounding and crossover appeal in the YA market. That said, there are a number of extremely dark, horrific shades to the novel - there is grimness, and all the slick visuals of a twisted John Carpenter film, which maybe preclude the book from mainstream YA territory.[1. In any case, the visual nature of the story and worldbuilding can only mean good things for the forthcoming film. I'm hoping for something Slither-esque. YES.]

The other fascinating thing about Pure is that it's also a very human, sympathetic novel that examines the tangle of underlying emotions and ties that emerge, even in the bleakest of circumstances. It's a family saga, it's a fable that plays on the Swan Wife parable, and there's something decidedly Star Wars-ish to the level of family drama (and I mean this in the best possible way). The mystery of Partridge's mother and the truth of her story - whether or not she's alive, and why she would have left her children behind - and the bedtime story she told her beloved baby boy, perhaps in the hope that he might find her in the future, is beautifully wrought. There's the blossoming love story between Pressia and Bradwell, of Partridge and Lyda, and the ties that could bind them from pursuing any future happiness, which is a sweet note in the middle of such darkness.

The best thing about the book, to me, is that while there is ample darkness and impossible odds stacked against our protagonists, just as there are deaths of many characters we have come to love and care for...all through that despair of the ravaged world, there's a stubborn, irrefutable vein of hope. I cannot wait for the next book, and certainly Pure is on the long list for my notable reads of 2012 (so far).
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