Thursday, April 26, 2012


The quick and dirty:
Rating: 4 stars
Length: Nicely long without getting bogged down (434 pages)
Publication: February 2, 2012 in trade paperback from Headline Ome; February 8, 2012 in hardback from Grand Central Publishing

At a guess, the weirdly close release in these formats is a marketing move.  
Premise: Pressia Belze dreads her sixteenth birthday, the day when she'll be kidnapped from her grandfather and conscripted. Partridge Willux dreads his future of being mentally and physically recoded, and the faint hint that his mother might actually be alive drives him to escape the Dome that has sheltered him for years. The years since the Detonations have left both of them adrift and unsure of the truth, and the journey that follows when they finally meet teaches them more even as it unravels the little they thought they knew for sure.
Warnings: some fairly traumatic backstory on both sides, brief scene with maiming
Recommendation: I'd say to buy this one in paperback, especially if you have a soft spot for dystopian coming-of-age stories. Odds are it'll be available at plenty of libraries given the huge marketing bubble, though, so take a look there first.

What makes this one so hard to put down: 

Julianna Baggott is amazingly deft at weaving together all sorts of little details to produce a dreamlike and defiant mood. The most pervasive but not obvious element here is her use of the present tense, which can often come off as either pretentious or moody. Here, it instead reminds you that these characters are forced to live in the moment and trade memories because the future is too grim and murky to plan for except in terms of dodging the worst-case scenarios. The point of view passes mainly between Pressia and Partridge every few chapters, later adding occasional segments from Lyda, Partridge's friend in the Dome, and El Capitan, a skeptical officer in the military.

There's a strong sense of nostalgia, given how many people still living remember a different life, and the way Pressia latches onto little things like 3-D glasses and car ads just works. She can't remember things like everyone living without scars and having enough to eat, but the impression of brightness as she tries to assemble memories out of advertisements drives home the way that longing for the past is a fact of life. 

Partridge keeps remembering a story that his mother told him when he was young, and that kicks off a fairy tale motif built around really lovely conservation of detail. One sentimental object that he finds in his mother's archival box sticks around and keeps revealing more and more secrets along a trail of bread crumbs dropped long ago. A detail about Pressia that comes up so often that you've completely adjusted to it becomes a plot point, one bit of near-scenery in the barbershop where she lives with her grandfather was planted deliberately years ago, and a threat that's been mentioned but unfulfilled for so long that it's nearly the boogeyman finally erupts near the end, with devastating results. Baggott has a really masterful gift for simply mentioning something in a way that has you accepting it as fact and then punching you in the gut with it later, and using these fairy tale-esque leaps from ordinary details to near-magical revelations blends really well with the gritty despair running through the environment.

One of the strongest decisions plot-wise is to dodge the extremely predictably love story that Baggott could have done. I was already bracing myself for the "boy from an isolated place falls for the tough-but-compassionate girl, the girl admires his optimism and bravery in an unfamiliar world," and then both leads went for someone besides the other. It was honestly really nice to see that go in different directions, and the ensuing relationships for both Pressia and Partridge work quite well. 

Lyda, a sweet Dome girl who never thought of rebelling even after helping Partridge, reads as absolutely convincing, as does Bradwell, who's never been anything but a rebel even as a child. They help swing at the extremes and balance Partridge and Pressia, who are both uncertain about what they believe. Partridge has been uneasy about his life and questions the official story about everything to the point where he's willing to throw it all away and escape, but Lyda rightly fears the consequences of stepping out of line and doesn't want to leave the Dome. She's been told all her life that the people out there are twisted wretches willing to rape anyone who looks whole, and in the absence of outside evidence, she believes it. It's good that she's willing to grow past that when she meets the people outside, but it's also reasonable to see that a lot of the propaganda is in fact really believable and that not everyone inside is a sheep; that sort of broad striping has really killed the attempted complexity of many dystopian novels before.

The sequences from Lyda's point of view were some of the most compelling, bringing up whispers of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. She winds up in more trouble than she anticipated for helping Partridge, no one is being honest with her, and her childhood has prepared for none of it. Women in the Dome are educated to an extent, but they're valued primarily for their reproductive organs; being declared unfit to bear the next generation makes you a second-class citizen. This is partly due to the work of the Feminine Feminists, a pre-Detonation movement dedicated to making sure that women were embracing their natural role in the home. The philosophy persisted into the Dome, and we see very few women in positions of power in that government. Backsliding gender relations when people are trying to run a eugenics program has always seemed fairly convincing, and this book carries it off well without making it overbearing. Lyda has spent her whole life trapped, but we're shown that she has immense resolve as soon as she sees a chance to move.

Bradwell is also excellent, providing a contrast to Pressia's longing for things to just be happy and bright like they were in her childhood, and it's actually great that we don't get scenes from his point of view. He's been living in secret, assumed dead, and trying to share what really happened even after things like seeing his parents shot in their beds before the Detonations. This means that he's been tough and isolated, refusing to latch on because it would slow him down, and hearing him force his motivations out into the open is much more effective than seeing it from the inside of his head would be. He hates the Dome and everything it stands for, but he's willing to ally with the newly-emerged Partridge (though their interactions are a little stilted) in pursuit of their goal. He's both the cynical eldest of the group and oddly flustered when confronted with his own emotions, and the contrast works. 

Not all of the details gel, but the worldbuilding is really easy to sink your teeth into. People's fusings (merging on an inseparable genetic level) to other people and objects run the gamut from simply horrifying to oddly poignant, and having that level of deformity and pain as part of the environment heightens the mood. We see people die and become horribly injured, realize that they've lost something in the worst way imaginable, and have to keep moving because there's no other choice. Pressia and Partridge really shine when they're reacting to trauma because they see it so differently but read as real. Partridge's losses were distant, truly cushioned, and he's furious at the idea of more; Pressia has seen so much suffering that she goes numb and can't stop seeing it. Despite some wobbles discussed below, it's a well-constructed world.

The red pen: 

Pure unfortunately tends to fall down on the question of exactly how people wound up fused to each other and to everyday objects. The explanation of nanotechnology encouraging flesh to bond and grow in ways that it otherwise wouldn't seems reasonable enough, but fusions like people merging with rocks and becoming golem-like creatures, or merging with both functioning guns and animals into super-soldiers, don't really track. Those aren't just bonds or mutations; they're fundamental transformations in every aspect of body chemistry, and the described level of technology pre-Detonation pins the story to within a few decades of the present day. In a fantasy book, I'd love to see a magical cataclysm binding people to their surroundings; there's a lot of room to play with symbolism and connections. The fact that this is science fiction, despite the fairy tale motif, makes it seem like an attempt to cut corners on the science with "because nanotechnology" and still create all sorts of monsters and mutants.

Partridge is....all right, I guess? The problem is that it's too easy to predict most of his reactions, he's a touch on the immature side, and he hasn't actually gone through the kind of suffering that would induce sympathy for him. There's one good moment where he's asked to make a sacrifice, but for the most part watching him adjust to predictably scary things and cope well makes his sequences drag a little. Ditto for El Capitan, who has a really good character concept (a man with his little brother fused into his back) without enough depth to become truly compelling. He's cynical but finds himself looking for beauty, rescues people at the right time, and provides military support. All in all, he's just not very interesting, and certainly not enough so to merit his own point of view chapters when he's providing so little that's new or thought-provoking. 

Partridge's father also doesn't read as very convincing in some scenes. He's troubled, power-hungry, and suffering the nasty side effects of some past poor medical decisions. Given that he was once married and had two children, none of this really explains his total failure to understand even the most rudimentary human motivations. He arranges for people Partridge cares about to die in front of him, and later in the same day he tries to explain that those in the Dome were just being reckless, they're atoning for it, and it's all over now. It does play up the lack of compassion, but we've already seen that demonstrated in so many ways that this comes off as melodramatic and unconvincing. 

The conservation of detail that works so astoundingly well with objects and plans really doesn't work so well for the plot itself. One carefully planted object having layers of meaning and many functions works brilliantly as evidence for how desperate people were to have things work without getting caught. The way characters just seem to trip into the right place at the right time, as with one suspiciously well-timed rescue via car, really places too much strain on the reader's belief in coincidence to really work. 

All in all, this one really creates a fascinating world, even if its movements tend to strain the limits of credulity. It's worth noting that lot of these flaws, with the exception of the science issues and the aforementioned rescue scene, are things aren't evident chapters later, or even afterthe book ends; they're not quite so glaring in the moment. I'm disappointed in the way the villains are ruthless and menacing but not terribly frightening in the present; they're not quite twirling their mustaches, but an institution that dark and unpleasant really needs a better set of faces. I'm really looking forward to the other two books in this trilogy, because if the writing stays the same or gets better then I think this shows a lot of promise. 

Prospects: This one is the first in a trilogy and the movie rights have already been sold, so expect to be hearing about this one pretty consistently for the next four or five years if that goes according to plan.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
-Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling. People in today's world are left without any sort of technology working, and combustion has failed as well. They have to re-learn how to survive, and dangerous people are rushing to fill the power vacuum.

-The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The violence is quite different in nature, being entirely humanity against itself, but the split between Pures and everyone else greatly resembles the divide between the Capitol and the people who have to struggle just to eat.

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