I think maybe you've noticed that I'm a little harsh when it comes to the reviews I write for traditionally published novels. It's not because of jealousy or hatred; though it used to be (you should have read this review I wrote for A Dance With Dragons). Whenever I read a self-published book, I now know that there is an enormous weight on the writer's shoulders. A novel like Vaempires: Revolution, for example, only has Tom Winship to hold accountable for the quality of the text. A novel like Mockingjay has a team of industry professionals and a respectable publishing house backing it, not just Suzanne Collins. That's partly why I was so harsh with the review of Mockingjay. I was tempted to ask Collins, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were wonderful so what happened to Mockingjay?
Since I'm discussing dystopian novels, let me introduce the last one I read, Pure by Julianna Baggott. With this book I broke one of my rules: I would not review books that I didn't purchase. I borrowed it from the library I work in. HENCEFORTH, let it be known that I will also review books I can find at my library.
Pressia, Patridge, El Capitan, and Bradwell exist in a world ravaged by "Detonations", which is the equivalent of the event many feared would take place during the Cold War: Nuclear Armageddon. Somehow they must come together in this dark world and find the hope within them necessary to rebuild human society.
What Didn't Work For Me:
Infodump: The first 50 pages of this book were the most horrible I have found in any novel of this type, particularly because the author throws so much at you. The action in the first Pressia chapter consisted of Pressia telling her grandfather that she was going to barter for supplies they need. It is four pages long in the edition I read, but it had so much about the world crammed into it that at times I lost sight of the conversation.
It went something like this:
Paragraph, paragraph, paragraph, paragraph of information about the world.
"dialogue that responded to that first line of dialogue"
Paragraph, paragraph, paragraph, paragraph of more information about the world.
It is particularly daunting since all the information in this chapter shows up later, some in action.
Worldbuilding: The world Baggott creates is unrealized. I could not get a grasp on the type of society the characters lived in before the Detonations. At times it felt like they were in Nazi Germany (Bradwell tells the others that those who did not attend church were found and shot in their sleep--church!!!!) and at other times like they were in the middle of a Revolutionary War (one of the characters near the end has memories of a network of people openly revolting and Bradwell also mentions that his parents were part of a resistance). The most jarring part of this is that it was supposed to be the United States of America, this place. So where was the President and Congress? Did this totalitarian/religious sentiment exist in all 50 states (which are some of the most culturally diverse locations on the planet)?
Hell, where were the local militias? How about the world outside the United States? They mention Japan, but what about the other countries of the world?
It was too fuzzy for me to accept and some of it felt like it was made up on the moment to answer questions raised--like what I mentioned about church absentees being shot. And I couldn't get around why all of these deformed humans didn't band together and take down both the OSR and the Dome since they all share a hatred for the Pures.
Dystopian or apocalyptic: As dystopian fiction, it doesn't function except to present a set of cliched themes already addressed by dozens of other novels. Too much technology is bad. Genetic engineering is dangerous. Religious zealotry leads to atrocities. Totalitarianism is evil. These are not groundbreaking. In the novel they are more like a recap of everything that made other novels great. But here I'm being too harsh...
What Worked For Me:
After the rocky start, Julianna Baggott, the critically acclaimed author, comes on the stage and presents fiction that is engaging. This happens about halfway through the book, when the author no longer spends sentences giving us world details. It made me feel better since this novel has had some incredible support from well-known authors--the back cover even had a blurb from a Pulitzer Prize winning author! I thought maybe it was just me.
The second half of the novel is noteworthy in that it focuses on the internal and external conflicts of its cast and allows you to delve into the science fiction.
Science Fiction: Initially, I had this in the "What Didn't Work For Me" column. This novel forced me to look into my own prejudices about what constitutes believable science in science fiction. I kept being cynical and asking questions like, why didn't their underwear fuse to them? If I was going to ask dumb questions like that, then I also had to ask others, like, why is faster-than-light travel possible in most sci-fi? What's the deal with space gravity that ought not to exist? What makes great science fiction isn't that the science is plausible, but that it captures the imagination.
In Pure, the effects of the bombs captured my imagination. The fusings were very cool, sometimes giving things a surreal coating. And they don't forgive. Even the most beautiful character, Pressia, has scars and odd fusings. Maybe this aspect of the novel isn't perfect, but it opens possibilities. My favorites were El Capitan and Bradwell's fusings. These were done well enough to be a treat. The most disturbing were the fusings of the mothers with their children, doomed to literally carry them everywhere they go and never see them grow up.
Character interactions: It is in that second half of the novel where the characters begin to come to life. Their encounters are enjoyable to read even while some of the characters, like Partridge, aren't exactly enjoyable on their own. Partridge with Bradwell worked great. Partridge with Pressia worked even better. Pressia with Bradwell was done tastefully enough for me not to gag (I won't go into much more detail than that to avoid a spoiler). Pressia with El Capitan worked well too. I think Lyda would have been more enjoyable if she had played a greater part in the story.
And the very best interactions, in my opinion, were between El Capitan and Helmud. That thing that the immobile Helmud does towards the end was so surprising that I was cheering for him. It just came out of nowhere!
And thanks to this I began to care for their stories. The weight on Partridge's shoulders... Pressia unsure of who her family is (was)... El Capitan keeping Helmud despite the dark thoughts he sometimes has... Bradwell and his conspiracy theories and prayers...
It will be for the character interactions that I will return to the world of Pure when the second installment of the trilogy becomes available.
Pure suffers from comparisons to great works of dystopian fiction, like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, and most recently, The Hunger Games; I could not help but to repeatedly compare it to The Hunger Games. Sadly it is not on the same level as any of them. This is just my opinion, but the reading experience was not there in the beginning and I couldn't forgive or ignore this because of the enjoyment I got from the second half of the novel.
However, on its own it's not half bad. It definitely helps if you have not read any of the titles I just named above. Give Pure a try. Or if you devour this type of fiction, then read it to see another take on our dark future.