The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Boo, Part II: Pure

After finishing VanderMeer's Annihilation from the last post, I moved on to a book I was super excited to read.  It was the culmination of a trilogy I've been tracking for a while, ever since Julianna Baggott's spectacular debut followed me home.

Because it hits certain marks, it is difficult not to discuss the Pure trilogy in terms of The Hunger Games.  Young adult science fiction, female protagonist, dystopian near future, scary government overlords, hidden agendas and a love triangle.  But this is not The Hunger Games, girls and boys!  The first book promises a world actually a little darker and more twisted, which I love...

Clare Clark's NYT review sums up the world better than I can: Sometime in the unspecified future, a series of detonations has all but destroyed the world. A handpicked few were given refuge in the Dome, a high-tech bubble designed to withstand environmental disaster. Those left outside were not so fortunate. The intensity of the explosions not only devastated the landscape but changed forever those who survived it, fusing people with animals, with objects, with the earth. The lucky ones can still function. One young man has a slavering dog instead of a leg and has “learned how to walk with a quick, uneven limp.” Another has several birds embedded in his back, their wings moving under his shirt. Some types are common enough to have been given names: the Groupies, drunk and vicious, have been bound into one massive body, while the feral Beasts are half man, half animal. The Dusts are barely human at all, monsters who have bonded to rocks and rubble, and who drag themselves out of the ground like living land mines to devour any creature that strays too close.

Pure's world is beautifully realized and inherently cinematic.  City dwellers scuttle between roofless buildings, hiding in cellars and scrounging for existence.  The suburbs are now known as the Meltlands, named after the liquified remains of plastic jungle gyms.  The Deadlands are full of hidden monsters, some human, some not, and covered in a scree of rock and blasted sand.  Looming over each landscape is the Dome, a sealed biosphere protected from the ravages of ecological devastation and full of "Pures" horrified by the idea of contamination.  It will come as no surprise that the film rights have already been snapped up.  If The Hunger Games and Divergent keep making young-adult dystopia movies vast amounts of money at the box office, Pure should be produced soon.  

Until that moment: onward we read!  On the day of the explosions, our protagonist Pressia was a little girl holding a baby doll.  That doll's head is now fused to her fist.  She also lost her parents in the detonation, and now lives in the city with her grandfather.  When she turns 16 in a few days, she will be collected by the evil OSR and trained and indoctrinated as a killer.  Thankfully, Pressia's doll's head won't get in the way of her shooting ability; otherwise the OSR would use her for target practice.  She and her neighbors struggle for food, for survival, and for hope while they await the day when the Pures emerge from the Dome to save them all.

Just as we begin to believe that the people in the Dome have it easy, we meet Partridge, son of the Pure leader Willux.  Mourning the deaths of his mother and older brother, Partridge is estranged from his father and unhappy in the sterile environment of the Dome.  When he discovers that his mother might in fact be alive and living outside, he escapes the Dome to search for her and joins forces with Pressia.  Of course, the world goes to hell and everyone is trying to hijack these young people to serve their own nefarious ends, etc, etc.  

Pressia is the contemporary epitome of the "Strong Female Character" in that she gets things done.  I don't find this trope particularly engaging, as the SFC usually spends so much time being strong that she's lacking in actual character.  For contrast, see Buffy Summers and Katniss Everdeen, "Strong People Who Happen to be Female:" flawed, sometimes unlikeable, but human.  One of the reasons that The Hunger Games is so successful with readers is that identifiying with Katniss is easy.  Pressia and her friends are all straightforward and goodhearted, a little too cookie-cutter to ring true.

For me, the most compelling characters are those engaged in the struggle to grow as a person.  In these books, that character is a young man calling himself El Capitan.  His younger brother Helmud was riding piggyback on the day the bombs fell, and now Helmud is fused to El Capitan's back.  Helmud communicates only in repeated snatches of conversation which nevertheless carry a menacing echo of feral intelligence.  The two of them--their mere appearance, their interdependence, El Capitan's growing understanding of Helmud's separateness--are fascinating. I also really like Partridge's girlfriend Lyda.  Her character arc is one of the most impressive, as she transforms from a pampered trophy-wife-in-training to a badass warrior who prefers the starkness of the world outside the Dome, because it feels more real to her.

Speaking of trophy wives, the wife of the OSR commander is an adherent of Feminine Feminism, which is merely a reversion to pre-feminist gender repression.  The Commander's Wife wears a white full-body stocking, covering her from face to the tips of her toes, under her perfectly pressed house-dress.  She is expected to find her fulfillment in baking, housekeeping, and child-rearing.  There is little explanation of how feminism reverted to repression, but the moniker of the movement is evocative and fascinating.  This character is one of the most interesting for me, and I was hoping to see more of the Feminine Feminist movement.  Unfortunately, Baggott seemed to feel that these few brief scenes with the Commander's Wife were sufficient.  

Pure is a wonderful introduction to a new world where life and death overlap in unexpected ways. I was disappointed in Fuse, but figured it was caught in the dreaded second-book trap of being a bridge from Awesome Book #1 to End of Trilogy #3.  It continues the story of Pressia and Partridge, and spends significant time on the secondary characters, but somehow it lacks the heft of Pure.  It does attempt to be more of a character- than plot-driven book, but just doesn't make them complex enough. I firmly believe that you can have character-driven complexity in young adult fiction, so I'm just not sure why this book couldn't give me the oomph I was craving.  Plot-wise, Pressia and Partridge have parted ways, fighting against the Dome on different fronts.  Partridge returns to the Dome in order to attack the power structure from within, but finds himself trapped in his father's narrative, saddled with a fake fiancée and missing most of his rebellious memories.  Pressia and her team of rebels find a way to decode secret messages from the Dome, and they discover they need to steal an airplane (!) and fly to Ireland (!!).  Yep. Jumping the shark much, anyone?

When we return in book three, Burn, Pressia and her team are grounded in Ireland.  She must find her way back in order to continue the rebellion.  Meanwhile, Partridge takes charge of the Dome, but things are significantly more complex than he realizes.  While he sees circumstances in a very pragmatic, black-and-white way, his attempts to force the Dome residents to face their actions have disastrous consequences.  He becomes trapped in ever-more labyrinthine plans, and his childlike view of good and evil is pushed to its limit. 

As I mentioned above, it is difficult to discuss the Pure trilogy without referencing The Hunger Games.   Pure doesn't concern itself with why the world has become so segregated.  There is no underlying logic behind the separation of Haves and Have-Nots, just a physical embodiment of the 1-percenters.  We never know why the bombs were dropped--only that some megalomaniacs decided that the world needed to be cleansed.  There is no seeming need for justification, no desire to complicate the issues.  And that is where the Pure trilogy falls down.

By the trilogy's end, there is none of The Hunger Games' uncertainty, or stuggling with reality.  Katniss's mistakes as a leader, even her unwillingness to be a leader, is nowhere to be found in the heroes of Pure.  Pointing out the flaws in society is always easier than fixing them, and The Hunger Games struggles with that knowledge.  Burn lets the one character that has learned that lesson retreat from the world and commit suicide.  By the end of the trilogy, we have no idea how the world will be changed, but it must be for the better, since these stalwart young people are in charge.  Baggot ultimately makes the easy, safe choice, and undercuts the darkness that make the trilogy so arresting in the beginning.  Pure is a book that revels in its impurities, and by the time I finished Burn, it felt more like a fizzle.

But things are looking up!  I just today began Words of Radiance, the second book in the Brandon Sanderson "Stormlight Archive."  You can see my rave review of the first book, Way of Kings, here (also stories of George, my camel).  I court extreme geekery when I attempt to explain how good it feels to be back in this world!  I'm a whole four chapters in, and I am happily wallowing in Sanderson's universe.  My friend The Serial Bookseller explained to me how The Stormlight Archive fits in with Sanderson's other worlds, and how there are characters that pop from one book's world to the others.  Apparently it's going to take over ten books to make the whole thing happen.  The Serial Bookseller is a hardcore Sanderson-lover (Sandersonian?  Sandersonite? Sandersonist?) and is totally psyched to find out how it all hooks together.  I'm frankly not sure that I am willing to spend that much time looking for Easter eggs in the books.  [NOTA BENE: An Easter egg is not delivered by bunnies, Gentle Readers.  It is an inside joke or a hidden message found within books or movies.  It's like Al Hirschfeld's "Nina" signatures.  You can live without seeing them, but they're fun to play with.]  

Now I am counting the hours til I can snuggle under the covers with my book.  See you when I come up for air!