Fuse by Julianna Baggott (Pure Trilogy: Book 2)

You might think that with the state of the world right now, reading dystopia apocalypse fiction; (hey look, I made a word!), would be the last thing I’d want to do. Oddly though, it was the fast action, immediacy, and sheer cinematic thrill ride that I remember from Pure, which recommended Fuse to me at this point, since there’s nothing better for taking your mind off real world grimness than getting lost in another world’s grimness. Plus of course, Pure had not so much finished, as merely stopped, so like any avid reader I just wanted to continue the story.

With El Capitan taking over the OSR militia, matters for those living in the bomb scarred city outside the dome are slightly improving. Yet, despite the lack of death squads or forced recruitment, life is still hard and people still dream of being Pure, their scars and fusings reversed, and living a safe, privileged life as those in the dome do. Pressia is certain that her mother’s legacy and the history of the group responsible for the detonations holds the key to undoing the damage they caused, and that six mysterious robotic black boxes, found after the downfall of OSR’s commander Ingership, hold a clue to the whereabouts of that key. As Pressia and resistance leader Bradwell begin hunting down clues however, the dome sends a cruel message in the form of a child who is both pure, and severely damaged. Ellery Willox, the architect of the Nanite massacre, wants his son Partridge back inside the dome, and doesn’t care how many people he has to kill along the way. Partridge and his lover Lyda, are left with a stark choice, to return to the close, controlled environment of the dome, and whatever plans Willux has for them, or watch more people die. Yet Willux’s plans for his son might be stranger and more complex than even Partridge could imagine, and Lyda, the gentle, passive girl brought up to be a perfect wife and helpmate, will find herself standing on the edge of out-right war.

I will admit, the first third of Fuse was fairly disappointing. In any second series volume, the reader is familiar with the world and characters, so you lose that wonderful element of exploration and novelty found in the first volume. This is especially true when an author has relied heavily on shock and spectacle in the creation of their world. With Pure being such an intensively cinematic and visually stunning experience, with people fused to glass, ground or each other, a landscape of burned and ruined buildings and melted plastic, and a plethora of mutated plants and animals, a part of its appeal was its sheer visceral shock value.  Unfortunately, (as the people of Baggott’s world would doubtlessly agree), you can get used to anything, and any shock will lose its value if viewed too many times.

Where some second volumes either simply take their characters elsewhere to explore more of the world, introduce new characters, or highlight aspects of the world not noticed before; as Collins did letting us explore the other districts and capital in catching fire, Baggott simply puts the same characters we’ve had before in the exact same landscape.

This would not matter if they were facing different dangers or other circumstances, however to begin with, we have precisely the same running scavenger hunt style mystery as in the first book, with Pressia and Bradwell finding one clue, which leads them to another clue which leads to another clue, all whilst being pursued by the genetically modified special forces soldiers.

It also did not help that those few new elements we did see were either shallowly explored, such as a gang of thugs called “the basement boys”, who had little history or personality beyond playing computer games at the time of the outbreak and now shooting first and asking questions after, and a set of dome worshipping religious maniacs. Religious Mania is always a rather trite plot device, and usually an excuse for some irrationally evil faction for the hero’s to defeat or run away from. Here particularly, the idea that (only nine years after our own world crumbled), some crackpot religion would develop, making a downright offensive mangling of Christian ideas and worshipping the dome as a god is simply just plain bonkers.

Of course, good characterization can always rescue a narrative, but here too, things were a little sketchy. With Baggott’s unusual third person, present tense style, everything seems significant. This is good when describing intensive, emotionally charged, or dangerous scenes, but less welcome when describing character actions, since each and every conversation, object or feeling feels overly emphasized to the point where emphasis does not matter, whether the taste of a meal, or the sound of a song; a fact not helped by the over dramatic reading of several of the audio book’s narrators.

This meant it was rather hard to pick out significant character moments from insignificant ones, particularly since some attitudes seemed to just abruptly change direction, then storm off in the new direction at top speed. In the first book for example, Pressia disliked Bradwell on sight and had an endlessly snarky and adversarial relationship with him, and yet now she adores him completely, rhapsodizing about his beautiful muscular body and dreaming of spending the rest of her life with him.

Likewise, despite spending little time together, Partridge and Lyda are simply and uncomplicatedly in love. The major saving grace here was El Capitan and Helmud, the brother attached to El Capitan’s back, occasionally resentful or caring, complex and at times quite funny. Indeed, for such a grim, and at times a little too dour novel, the relationship between Cap and Helmud provides a surprising amount of humour, especially in Helmud’s selective mimicking of speech, indeed many reviewers list Helmud as a favourite character and it’s not hard to see why.

Despite this unpromising beginning though, Almost abruptly, things began to change. This started with a rather sweet and genuinely romantic moment for Partridge and Lyda, and Partridge’s return to the dome. The Mothers are one of Baggott’s most interesting creations, and whilst I find it a little odd that Pressia and co simply left Partridge with a bunch of psychotic men-hating women who previously cut off his finger, the contrast between their mistrust of Partridge as a “death”; their term for men, as compared to the gentle care and tutoring they provide to Lyda is fascinating to see, indeed the Mothers’ represent some of the best written grey characters I’ve seen for a while, especially because it’s fully understandable why they are the way they are, and yet their attitudes and behavior is often far from reasonable.

On the level of character too, Lyda’s interactions with the Mothers, especially given her forced inactivity in the previous book are quite fascinating, both the ways she learns from them, and the ways she disagrees with their philosophy; especially when it comes to her relationship with Partridge. I particularly admired how Baggott has Lyda begin to learn combat techniques, yet never has her become a super warrior. Even Baggott’s rather overly emphatic method of detailing action worked for Lyda, since for a girl who had been brought up to be a housewife, shooting, gutting and skinning a deer in the wild would be a significant achievement.

Partridge meanwhile returns to the dome to find himself caught in an almost twilight zone type situation. indeed, in the twisted view of family life his father has planned for him, and one of the most downright bizarre takes on a love triangle which even tops Peter’s playing for the Camera’s in the Hunger games for its sheer weirdness, Baggott gives us once again a fascinating and strange environment to explore, and one which is very different to what we’ve seen of the world outside the dome. In Partridge’s plot, Baggott even creates a seemingly vapid, superficial and grasping character, then shows her to have depths, loyalties and complexities far deeper than we might have thought, as well as reconfirming Partridge; despite the Mothers’ condemnation of him as “a death”, as simply a genuinely nice guy caught in circumstances beyond his control. Whilst I still found Partridge and Lyda’s love blossomed a little too quickly, seeing his feelings persist under stress and even the influence of a very strange other woman was genuinely touching. Baggott also did something I did not expect, and dealt with the idea that Partridge was “destined to be a leader”, introduced in the first book in an interesting, and in the case of Partridge’s father, unique way, taking routes with the resistance I would not have expected, both in the choices presented to Partridge, and in the reality of just how much people might know or care about the atrocities Willux committed.

Sadly, Pressia’s plotline continued with the same run and find mystery boxes we’d seen previously, even running into an old friend mentioned in the first book did not really alter Pressia’s character too much. Pressia’s arc was also not helped by the fact that here, Baggott’s love triangle (or counting Helmud, love parallelogram), was trite in the extreme, with Pressia realizing, that two (or perhaps two and a half), buff, rough, tough guys, adore her, and said guys eventually putting aside their jealousy of each other to save Pressia.

Even the clues to the mystery, and her mother’s plans were still presented as a classic McGuffin hunt, especially since nobody actually asks where the mysterious black boxes of information actually come from, or how they magically found their way to the one person who could use them. Indeed, in Fignan, the black box AI that accompanies Pressia on her journey, Baggott came dangerously close to mimicking all those device ex Machina robots in science fiction, who suddenly turn out to have just the right attachment at just the right time to save the heroes. Whilst this is forgivable if the rest of the plot is well constructed enough, and the heroes have other challenges, in a plot already dogged by a little too much authorial assistance in getting from A to B, it certainly did not help.

This isn’t to say that Pressia’s plotline was a complete write off, but I do confess, I often felt I was sitting through yet another vehicle chase or confrontation with a swarm of Dusts just to get back to Partridge’s off beat, nightmarish politics or Lyda’s journey of self-discovery.

Ironically, the finale of Pressia’s story was probably the least interesting, even as it was the most conclusive. Far more interesting was the eventual revelation of Partridge’s father’s true plans for him, and the extent of Willux’ crimes, Lyda’s journey culminating in a genuinely selfless action and extremely difficult choice, and what ramifications these might have for the third volume. Indeed, I genuinely cannot predict where the third volume might take us or what the eventual conclusion of the series might be, which is always a good thing.

Those things which made Pure a compelling read, its pace and grotesque world, were here slightly running out of steam. Fortunately, when Fuse gets going it goes to new and very different places, and explores some distinctly disturbing ideas. Had the whole novel been of the quality of Partridge and Lyda’s plots, I’d likely be applauding this as one of the best books I’ve seen, yet even in Pressia’s plot, there is always El Capitan and his fantastic brother to keep matters interesting. So be assured, though this Fuse does burn slowly, it still gets to explode eventually, and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how far that explosion goes in book 3.

8/10 He's not heavy, he's my brother

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