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by Julianna Baggott


Pure by Julianna Baggott
© Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing, 2012

Julianna Baggott's Pure (the first of a trilogy) will break down the boundaries between contemporary fiction and those stories that have been unfortunately banished to the Young Adult section of a bookstore. Although Pure features many of the usual tropes of a dystopian fantasy novel, there's so much more to Baggott's story that she's able to reignite the tired genre with fresh blood and an unforgiving imagination.

Pressia Belze is a sixteen-year old girl currently living under her grandfather's care in a blitzed, ruined city. An organization called the OSR systematically rounds up every teenager on their sixteenth birthday to meet an undisclosed (but certainly awful) fate. She escapes when the OSR comes knocking, and falls in with a boy named Bradwell and his group of off-the-grid freedom fighters, determined to stand up against the atrocities that have led to society's demise.

Much of their animosity is targeted at The Dome, a perfectly controlled arcology established before The Detonations that ruined the rest of the world. Baggott presents The Dome through the eyes of Partridge, a sixteen-year-old boy who is the son of Ellery Willux, one of The Dome's leaders. Activity in The Dome is eerily regulated, revolving around a regimented series of medical procedures designed to optimize the residents' physical and mental prowess. During a strange meeting with his father, Willux alludes to Partridge's mother. He says she is someone who has "always been problematic," which Partridge interprets as a hint that she might actually still be alive somewhere outside The Dome's walls. With the assistance of one of his classmates, Partridge escapes The Dome to try and find the mother he never knew.

Of course, Pressia's and Partridge's paths will cross on the dusty wastelands outside The Dome. They'll team up and take on a shared opposition and discover new ways that their lives overlap. All this sounds fairly traditional, but it's everything except the broad plot of Pure that sets the novel apart from other, more familiar end-of-the-world tales.
Namely, the detonations that destroyed the world outside The Dome were not your ordinary, city-leveling bombs. In a malicious and imaginative twist, Baggott's bombs essentially re-atomize any survivors of the initial blast, forcing them to fuse with nearby objects or people: "The world had been forever changed. Now most of the wretches who survived are atrocities, deformed beyond human recognition, perversions of their previous life forms." Pressia's not just a sixteen-year-old heroine, she has the head of her childhood doll fused to her wrist where her hand once was; her grandfather has a motorized fan fused into his trachea. Bradwell has a birdcage with a pair of somewhat-living birds buried inside his back, and El Capitan, a fighter of the OSR, has his brother melted into his spine (they were both riding on a motorcycle when the bombs hit). Pure feels like Lois Lowry's The Giver by way of The Hills Have Eyes: it's a genuinely disgusting conceit but one that imbues Pure with an unsettling and potentially limitless scope. If Baggott is capable of carrying a seemingly "young adult" story with such a disarmingly R-Rated premise, what else does she have up her sleeves? The action in Pure is vicious, depressing and violent, but somehow sobering in all its brutal honesty.

What Pure is missing is a world to contain all the surprises Baggott wants to throw at her readers. Too often does the landscape in Pure expand out of convenience - the close proximity of plot points works against any suspension of disbelief that Baggott had previously and effortlessly achieved with her novel's mutant premise. A map of the events in Pure seems like it would only be a couple of square miles wide. When looking for clues, it feels like the cast of Pure goes only just around the block to advance the plot, and that The Dome is always just a short walk behind them. Baggott's put enough threads in Pure to give her world a potentially satisfying expansion in the subsequent volumes of the trilogy, but for now the book feels oddly self-contained, trapped inside a different sort of dome.

Despite its flaws, Pure is very important book in the grand scheme of genre fiction. Like its characters, caught somewhere between human and machine, between child and adult, Pure is a hybrid of sorts as well. If it was written for teens, it doesn't show it: the book is missing the angst and restraint that a typical young adult novel would possess. But it's also missing the complexity and far-reaching expansiveness that is indicative of an adult fantasy novel. Yet, in no way are these omissions faults: Pure is a different sort of species, quite possibly the missing link that could fuse together a wide and distant audience.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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