Burn by Julianna Baggott (Pure Trilogy: Book 3)
She is drawn to the fire, some people never learn, and she will walk through the fire and let it...
With the second book improving upon the first, and a potentially explosive setup for the final conclusion, obviously seeing how things; well Burn, in the last book was something I very much wanted to do.
Before getting into my thoughts about Burn, be aware that I'll necessarily have to mention a couple of spoilers for Pure and Fuse, so read on at your peril.
Pressia's quest seems complete. She has found the formula which could potentially reverse the effects of the nanite bombs, and make all of the scarred Wretches with their fusing's and genetic damage as pure as the privileged few inside the Dome. Even if Pressia can get the formula back to the Dome scientists however, there is no guarantee those who have so long looked down on the Wretches will desire to help, and when Pressia discovers a weapon which can destroy the Dome, her lover, the hot headed Bradwell, and her companions fused brothers El Capitan and Helmud are all too eager to deploy it. Meanwhile, any beliefs Partridge had that ending the life of his tyrannical father and taking power would ease the stultifying politics and superficial normalcy of the Pures are dashed. When a combination of frustration and altruism cause him to expose the full extent of his father's crimes, chaos erupts, ad to stop it Partridge must give up the thing he values most, his lover Lyda, and initiate a very public marriage to Irelene, the girl his father groomed to be his bride.
Lyda herself chafes under the restriction of the Dome's ultra conservative society, and though she is happy to be expecting a child with Partridge, she fondly remembers her life in the ash scarred world outside and longs for freedom. With destruction looming on every side, and the promise of a better future at hand, will a new world truly rise from the ashes, or is everything doomed to burn.
Once again we return to the fast paced, present tense view alternating between the four main characters, with the action roughly split between El Capitan and Pressia's perspectives outside the Dome), and Partridge and Lyda inside it. Yet, in many ways Burn is a far more introspective novel than either of its predecessors. There is a fair share of action, attacks by dusts and other mutated humans, battles, chases, and so on, however, where before, I sometimes felt as if I was reading my way through a particularly dramatic film script, here, it feels far more like the literal inner thoughts of four characters, even if four characters in a bizarre apocalyptic world, and those things which are significant to those characters, Partridge learning about his evil father's true feelings for his family, Lyda's nostalgia about her time outside the Dome and her longing for hunting and survival; (not to mention all four characters' romantic impulses), are picked out in wonderfully pointed detail. Indeed, where before, given the emphatic descriptions (aided by a frequently rather too over emphasised performance from the audio books' four narrators), the significance of even minor things was hammered on like a nail, here, I just got the impression I was reading about four people who felt things very intensely, beliefs, attractions, envy, hate, desire to be loved and so on, and whose feelings painted the environment around them.
Again, probably one of the most compelling characters here are El Capitan and Helmud (yes that is grammatically correct), indeed, whilst the love triangle (especially two guys with one female principle character), is a very overused trope in fiction, I really didn't mind El Capitan's depiction here. Everything, from his admission of his feelings to Pressia, even while fully realising she's in love with resistance leader Bradwell, to one extremely ugly section in which his feelings of physical self-disgust and inadequacy lead him to resentfully start fighting with his fused brother, felt very believable.
I also liked the way that Baggott remembered El Capitan's dark past, and had some downright nasty consequences of his previous position as a brutal militia leader, torturer and murderer. Indeed it says a lot for Baggott just how much I've found myself caring about a character who in the first book looks like one of the trilogy's main villains, and how much I forgot this history until reminded of it in such a brutal way.
In terms of love triangles, Partridge's feelings also make sense, with Partridge kept separate from Lyda and forced into a sham political marriage with the unstable Iralene. I do wish Baggot had actually included a little more of Partridge and Iralene getting on as people, since whilst I wasn't against the idea of Partridge, as a compassionate young man developing some feelings for Iralene, at the same time, given that every time you see them together Partridge is either resenting the fact he's not with Lyda, or trying to get Iralene to help him circumvent political rivals and find out more of his father's secrets, it's a little hard to see how these feelings developed, then again, the same could be said for Lyda in the first book, since Partridge's love for her also seemed to come slightly out of the blue. I will say, it's a shame that Iralene, a fascinating mass of contradictions, vapid yet strong, insane yet engaging, is not explored more the way that other major secondary characters such as Bradwell and Helmud have been, especially given that Partridge probably interacts more with her than with Lyda here.
Pressia's story is probably the most straightforward romance wise, indeed it was nice to see Pressia, who has been a little flaky in motivation terms in the past, here feel a much more understandable person, in love with Bradwell, friends with, and admiring El Capitan (even if she can't return his feelings exactly), and desperate to become Pure.
Unfortunately, Pressia, El Capitan and indeed Bradwell, all suffered slightly from a problem I've seen all too often in YA literature portraying romance, namely that when the fate of a large portion of the human race is at stake, there are probably bigger things to be worrying about than who your kissing or whether someone returns your feelings, and unlike The Hunger Games, or even Partridge's phony wedding plot, Pressia and co's romance did not really seem to bear on anything outside itself. Of course, romance as a break from high tension action or big decisions is fine, but having the romance impact the discussion of the big decisions and even peoples' feelings about the big decisions is getting a bit too close to self-obsession country.
Unfortunately, it is when we consider Burn's plot progression that the book runs into major problems.
Pressia's plot in both previous books (and indeed Partridge's in Pure), was essentially a McGuffin hunt, getting one thing to get another thing to get another thing. Baggott abandons this style here and tries a more nuanced war and political intrigue story. Unfortunately however, despite a great set of impressions and likable characters, so many times in the book, character motivations and even basic logic got lost, and events seemed to be happening just to move the story on the right track, rather than because they followed from what had gone before.
Bartrand Kelly; the Irish colleague of Partridge's father, simply gives Pressia the formula, but also insists she take a bacterium that can destroy the Dome. It is obvious in terms of dramatic structure why Pressia and crew need the bacterium, to provide an equaliser in a very unequal fight and an ongoing threat of violence as opposed to the cure promised by the formula, however, they are simply given it, with Kelly literally telling them to use it or not as they choose. What is Kelly's motivation? Is he a friend or foe of the Dome and Partridge's father? Why would he risk giving such a dangerous weapon to some random Americans? Who knows, Baggot sadly does not explain.
Similarly, while it makes sense that the Pures erupt into violence and suicides when Partridge forces them to face the fact that his father actually murdered most of humanity, devastated the world, and only allowed the Pures to survive because they fitted into his vision as the privileged few. How exactly does Partridge marrying Iralene calm the situation? Will people just ignore all the devastation and unfairness because the boss's son is getting married? Indeed, I felt here Baggot was a little too obviously trying to mimic the plot of The Hunger Games without the solid character motivations or world building to back it up.
We learn that Forsteed, the Dome's military officer and Partridge's political enemy, has been waging a full out war against people outside the Dome following Partridge's father's death. I am not sure however why he is doing this? The entire point of the series is that those outside the Dome cannot get in and vice versa, why would Forsteed need to step up the war, other than to create tension and make the bacterium all the more critical. Indeed, Forsteed was a severely underused character, which seems odd for someone who looked to be the books' main villain.
These sorts of inconsistencies continue throughout, Partridge and Lyda both just forget the 24 hour surveillance in the Dome and blurt out secrets which are used against them, even though at other times they spend a significant amount of time trying to find blind spots away from the cameras. They also write letters to one another, and entrust them to a friend, who never delivers them, though why he does this; other than to create romantic tension, it is not particularly clear.
Bradwell, all gung ho to take down the Dome at the start, magically changes his motivation halfway through, and somehow talks a crowd from murder and warfare one minute, to care and peaceful protest the next, (and this isn't the only easily swayed mob in the book).
Not only are there contradictory reactions galore here, but also many elements are introduced, which have little to no bearing on the plot.
The entire Irish community Pressia starts in, a world of cloned children, mad zombie guardians and sentient vines is definitely one I'd liked to have seen more of.
Characters like Hastings and Fandra just receive a quick name check and the robotic fignan, a major element in the last book, is literally dropped off the map, and probably most egregious of all, the resistance movement Cygnus begun by Presia's mother, and the whereabouts of Pressia's father are name checks only.
In Partridge's story, so many facts about the Dome, his fathers' plans, both for himself and his family, and the nature of the Pures and Wretches come to light, and yet seemingly go nowhere. Much of the time, other than the preparations for his wedding and the feelings for Lyda and Iralene, I found it fairly hard to get a handle on what Partridge's goals were, if any. It is odd, there are so many revelations here, all with intense reactions from Partridge, yet which ultimately have no bearing on him, or indeed the general progression of the plot. Since one particular fact about his father's future plans and the ultimate nature of the Pures and Wretches has pretty major implications for the entire world, this is a pretty huge oversight.
Lyda's plotline is something of an improvement in that there are fewer discrepancies, and indeed, the contrast between the narrow, almost Victorian role the Dome's women are forced into, and what Lyda remembers of the outside is pretty striking, with her knitting baby clothes and growing impatient with trivial feminine platitudes even as she dreams of making her own spears and hunting mutant wildlife. The problem however, is that much as in the first book, all of Lyda's resolving to be independent doesn't really go anywhere beyond superficial moping. When she does eventually actually act for herself (and even that is an action prompted by another), the action she takes is pretty selfish, and ultimately very destructive, making me lose a great deal of sympathy for her. Even if she did not know the full damage likely to be caused by the action she was taking, she certainly knows it is going to produce a good amount of death and destruction (she even says so), yet she does not care so long as she can be "free".
This brings me on to the books' conclusion.
My lady wondered if I'd enjoy the final ending since I appreciate beauty in darkness. Beauty in darkness however, means small rays of hope against a generally grim background. Unfortunately what we have here is more like buffoonery in darkness, large dollops of stupidity which actually cause the darkness in question.
More specifically, What we have are characters (frequently intelligent ones), who state given intentions, and know all relevant information, and yet act completely contrary to those intentions.
For instance, the final confrontation involves two sympathetic characters, both desiring peace in a hair trigger situation. Yet, the first thing one of them does is reveal a destructive weapon to the other, even explaining its use, whereupon the other escalates matters with a hostage situation since they believed the first character was going for that weapon, The hostage situation leads to a further hostage taken, a hostage who gets themselves killed even though they don't need to be, whereupon all bets are off.
Thus we finish with an incipient massacre, one made all the worse by what we've now learned about the world, indeed even the pure formula which has been the focus of the plot likely comes to nothing given the probable extent of the carnage.
We also lose characters, however, whilst the loss of the characters makes sense emotionally, the same cannot be said on a practical level, not when one dies due to their own inability to literally stop fighting with a gun to their head in the previously mentioned hostage situation, and another dies in a noble last stand protecting someone who likely wouldn't have even needed protecting if said noble character just considered other alternatives.
All of that being said, the final scene of the book, the ultimate point Baggot was obviously leading to throughout the series, and indeed an unexpected end to at least one of the romantic relationships made for a genuinely awesome moment, even if it came on the heels of such a large amount of just plain lunacy, and thus for me had a slightly lessened impact.
The best thing to say about Burn is that the individual pieces are great, indeed for a series whose style makes over emphasis a major hurdle, here the emotional beats tended to work extremely well. The problem however, is that the glue that binds those moments together, the consistent motivations, logical progression of events and building on past elements to show future ones, just plain isn't there, and so you are left with a hole which is less than the sum of its parts, not the least because several pretty important parts get lost or bent entirely out of shape.
Several reviews by those who have enjoyed the series have mentioned wanting a fourth volume just to wrap things up, and it's really not hard to see why.
Given the absence of a fourth volume however, all in all I admit Burn was not quite the conclusion it should have been, and yet the frustrating thing is there is just so much here that is good and well worth exploring, indeed it's again a testament of how good so many individual moments were here, that I gave the whole as higher rating as I did. Odds are that like me, if you've already read the first two volumes, you will go on to Burn just to see the conclusion, and it is a conclusion worth seeing, as long as you don't expect too much, or think too hard about just how fantastic it could have been if this book was just a bit more tightly written.
Review by Dark
Burn reader reviews
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