Pure by Julianna Baggott

7.5/10
Coming soon to a cinder near you
Pure book cover

I've generally found the recent YA dystopia boom to be something of a mixed bag. Sometimes as in The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner we end up with something truly dark and compelling full of interesting characters, at others however we simply wind up with a paint by numbers teen romance set at a 1984 costume party. Even before starting Pure however, I could tell from the basic premise that Pure was going to be something fairly unique.

It has been 9 years since the devastation when the nanite bombs fell, nine years whilst the survivors eke out a living in the ruins. Not just the landscape has been ruined, but the very bodies of all who survived have become fused with whatever they were closest to at the time, glass, metal, even pets, children or each other. Meanwhile in the sealed dome, the privileged pures, their bodies unscarred, unfused and whole live out a closely controlled closely monitored life, their intensive education and genetic programming preparing them for the time when they will emerge from the dome to retake the blasted earth.

Pressia Belze secretly longs for the before, when she had two working hands instead of one fist being fused to a doll's head, when she was unscarred and when everything in the world seemed bright, but she knows longing is no good, it's hard enough for her and her grandfather to survive, particularly since Pressia's sixteenth birthday is rapidly approaching, the day when she'll be drafted into the brutal OSR militia and forced to kill or be used as target practice. Meanwhile inside the dome, eighteen year old Partridge is chafing under the restrictions of his intensive education, and the physical and mental coding that goes with it. He too longs for the before, and to know the truth of what happened to his mother on the day the bombs fell. A clue from an interview with his cold and driven father and a sight of his mother's last belongings prompts Partridge's curiosity, and determines him to find out the truth, even if that means leaving the dome and confronting the brutal retches who populate the devastated world outside.

If I was to sum up Pure in one single word, that word would be cinematic. From its unusual third person present tense style, to quick, cliff hanger fuelled cuts between four or five characters, to the battles, chases, and sheer level of spectacle, Pure often feels more like a film than a novel.

In some ways, this is a definite plus. Not since China Miéville's remade have I seen quite as contorted and down-right disturbing visions of people as Baggott gives us, from Pressia's grandfather who lives with a rusted fan attached to his throat, to people with parts of animals or children fused into them, all populating a landscape of ash, rubble and melted plastic. Indeed it is not surprising that I've run across so many reviews from people which either praise Pure for the scope of Baggot's imagination, or are simply put off by the macabre horror of the whole thing. What is more, brief and visual though her style is, Baggott still picks out odd little details, small asides or flashes of atmosphere, the way an expert film director will let their camera linger on certain poignant visions, or highlight aspects of each shot to give the overall effect extra punch. Baggott also for the most part avoids the trap that some modern, less verbose writers fall into and is able to write naturalistic, if utilitarian dialogue that flows extremely well rather than feeling like excerpts from a screenplay.

The plot is replete with fast action sequences, from Partridge running an air vent gauntlet past turning fan blades, to attacks by groupies, people fused together into one mass, or dusts, people who have gone bestial and fused with the earth itself.

All of this creates a definite sense of unreality, and of being in a dangerous and alien world, especially when following Partridge who is just as much a stranger to this world as we are.

Unfortunately, the cinematic quality of the writing isn't an unqualified plus. Though Baggott's use of third person present tense gives her plenty of scope for apt turns of phrase, action cuts or dramatic tension, the style is less appropriate when dealing with characters. When discussing character emotions, Baggott always jumps to the strongest adjectives available. Pressia does not merely dislike someone she just meets, she hates them, Partridge doesn't just view his friend as touchy, he describes him as one of the most easily offended and sulky people he's ever met. A perfect illustration of this was when Pressia is forcibly inducted into the OSR and suddenly remarks without qualification how much she ‘loves’ her new uniform, how warm and comforting the jacket is, how she loves the feeling that she's part of something larger than herself. Considering that all we'd seen up to this point is how brutal the OSR was, including kidnapping all teenagers and murdering people randomly for fun, this made Pressia feel rather fickle.

Of course, I don't believe Baggott was intentionally writing characters without internal conflicts, indeed amidst the grotesque visions and action sequences there are some quiet character moments here, however, perhaps because she was consciously writing for a teenage audience, Baggott always seemed to have to employ a little less subtlety, or use action sequences to get her plot from A to B, which frequently resulted in both plot and characters feeling a little shallow.

The book begins for example with Pressia's attempts to hide from OSR by literally living in a cabinet (a rather childish response for a teenager), and when she finds a resistance leader who has apparently survived OSR's attentions, their instant antipathy at first sight is almost a sign-post to a romance, after which she meets Partridge and is hence forth swept along by OSR's hunters or Partridge's journey.

Indeed, I'm a little sorry we didn't see more of Pressia's life before she reached 16, since the few glimpses we do get, of a society of fused people trading items in a market, where Pressia's ability to make clockwork toys is just as valuable a skill as her ex-mortician grandfather's surgical skills, sounds like a fascinating one to explore.

It is I suspect for this reason that several reviewers have described Pressia as cold, and the book as feeling slow, despite the peppering of intensively horrific visions and action sequences, since other than her concern for her grandfather (more stated than felt), and Pressia's feelings for the resistance leader, which switch abruptly halfway through from antagonism to adoration, and Partridge's overbearing desire to find the truth, we get little idea of who these people are outside the ever racing river of the plot.

The exception to this rule is one of the secondary protagonists, El Capitan.

Though I wasn't exactly sure how El Capitan, OSR's commander switches from obeying orders and hating the dome (including apparently doing some very horrible things to OSR recruits), to being Pressia's ally, El Capitan's relationship with his learning disabled brother Helmet, a brother whose eternally fused to El Capitan's back was a fascinating one, and here, Baggott's tendency to talk in terms of love and hate rather than annoyance or other less strong emotions felt absolutely appropriate, since I doubt a person's feelings to the one who is both their burden and constant companion would be particularly sanguine.

Lyda, our final point of view character is someone who is served rather badly by Baggot's intensively visual style. A few hints we get indicate that prior to the detonations, America saw "the return of civility"; an ultra-conservative revolution. As part of this, the so called ‘feminine feminists’ instituted an almost Atwood-esque view of women, with female education becoming synonymous with a return to the idea of educating girls to be housewives and mothers. As such inside the dome boys and girls are segregated, and where the boys receive genetic coding to make them stronger and more intelligent, as well as lessons in valuable survival skills, girls are given a less rigorous education and aspire only to being married off and reproducing.

We first meet Lyda expecting a date with Partridge, someone she has not met up to now but has a crush on due to his good looks. During the date however, it becomes clear that Partridge is mainly concerned with Lyda as another aspect of cover for his escape plan, and though she does initiate a heart stopping kiss with him, his attention is obviously elsewhere. Unfortunately, following Partridge's escape Lyda spends almost the entirety of the rest of the book locked up in a rehabilitation centre, being constantly asked if Partridge has feelings for her.

Having a character in captivity of course can be a fascinating way to explore that character's perspective, as well as show that character's strengths and fortitude, indeed Stephen King wrote almost an entire novel with one character chained to a bed. Likewise, if Baggott had done with Lyda as Atwood did with Offred, showing her intensively rich internal life despite her physical and social restrictions and that she had a feeling, reasoning human mind contrary to her society's limited view of women, Lyda's plot could have been truly riveting.

Whilst we receive a lot of views of girls with shaved heads and Lyda artistically looking through a prison window, Baggott's focus on the visual means flashbacks are minimal and Lyda's internal dialogue extremely lacking. Indeed, much as Pressia goes from instant dislike to heart felt love, Lyda goes from almost not knowing Partridge at all, to believing she loves him by the end of the book, despite the almost zero time they spend together.

Of course Lyda's part of the plot was also where we got hints of resistance and a rather clever code for sending messages, however again, Baggott did not spend enough time on this code, the resistance, or give Lyda enough reaction to it other than astonishment to really let us get to know her as a person, although we will likely be getting more of Lyda in future books.

In terms of the world she creates, Baggott shows some fascinating ideas, and ones which, whilst they have some political bias, are neither overly preachy nor fervent. I particularly liked the fact that though we see the order the dome represents has a less than reasonable view of women, Baggott also included the mothers, a truly psychotic group of ex housewives fused to their own children living in the ruins, who refer to all men as "deaths", and perform mutilations on a whim, and who only agree to help Pressia because of her gender.

Unfortunately, much of the plot, as well as being frequently steered through conveniently placed action sequences also seemed to depend a little heavily upon happenstance. Though we have a partial explanation of Partridge's journey being monitored from the dome by internal bodily chips, this generally cannot account for the way significant characters happen to run into each other, not given the size of the chaotic and ruined city where the book is set. It was also highly convenient that so many events leading up to the detonation of the bombs involved one overarching plan by a very small group of people; despite the bombs wrecking worldwide devastation; a plan Partridge, despite being completely new to the world outside the dome, is able to uncover in a few hours thanks to a vague hint or two. Indeed, I agree with one reviewer on Goodreads, who said the plot moves rather like a sequence of quests in a computer game, with the next step being dictated as much by a new encounter with a monster or another location appearing n the quest journal, rather than flowing organically through the decisions or actions of its characters. This feeling was only enhanced when it was revealed that some characters are almost literally "destined to become leaders", something which felt more than a little out of place in such a gritty world as Baggott's. That being said, I am someone who loves following chains of quests in computer games, exploring new ground, seeing new monsters and having new encounters, so though the plot did smack a little of characters and the world being rather artificially moved into place, this was not something I minded quite as much; not when there were so many nasty beasties and bizarre mutations to uncover, and a dangerous journey across an artistically weird landscape.

The ending was not quite as surprising as it might have been, mostly because it ended on a question. Whilst I was a little confused as to the OSR turning out to be far less implacable than they appeared, mostly due to them apparently all being commanded by one arsehole and his mistreated wife, the final decisions were cinematic enough, though I did find the way Baggott cut between several perspectives in the same scene, including new characters we'd not had perspectives (or in one case even a name), from, before, rather slowed things down. In many ways the ending was more of a simple extended scene than an actual conclusion, then again, Pure is definitely a first part rather than a first volume, and the second book will likely pick the action straight up again where Pure left off.

Pure has both the strengths, and weaknesses of the best sort of action film. Spectacle, pace, and a few interesting ideas thrown in to make you take notice, so long as you don't consider matters too closely. Then again, on simple spectacle and action alone, Pure is likely well worth checking out, and hopefully the next two volumes in the series will further flesh out the characters and the world they come from.

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