Julianna Baggott’s gripping and stunningly imaginative dystopia provides an immersive experience that guarantees we understand the horrific results of the “detonations” that destroyed the world.
This dark tale is full of characters who physically fused with their surroundings during the heat of the bombs. These were no ordinary bombs but nanotech-enhanced weapons that disrupted molecular structures. That means there are now people who are part bicycle, or flecked with glass, or even fused with one another. The heroine of the story, Pressia, was 7 at the time of the detonations, and because she was holding a doll at the time, one of her hands now is the doll’s head.
When the story begins, Pressia is just about to turn 16, an age at which all citizens must turn themselves over to OSR, or Operation Sacred Revolution, the organization that now rules the city. OSR claims it is training people to take over the Dome, an experimental environment constructed before the Detonations. The Dome was intended to provide sustainable living in the event of nuclear or biological attacks or environmental disasters. Those who happened to be inside of the Dome at the time of the Detonations are the only ones who survived intact, and are known by those outside the Dome as “Pures.” Those outside are known as “Wretches.”
Most Wretches believe that the Pures are a benevolent, godlike group, who are only waiting until it is safe to come out of the Dome and rescue those on the outside. But then Pressia meets Bradwell, a brooding, intense, attractive boy about her age with scars on his face, and birds fused into his back. He teaches an underground course called “Shadow History,” in which he reveals disturbing information about how and why the Detonations really happened, and how and why some got into the Dome and some didn’t.
In addition to Pressia, a Wretch, the book also follows the story of Partridge, one of the Pures. Partridge’s father, Ellery Willux, is one of the most powerful men in the Dome, but Partridge perceives him as evil, and wants to escape the Dome and find out the truth about what happened to the world and to his mother, who never made it into the Dome.
In the meanwhile, things are heating up on the outside. The OSR is increasing its schedule of “death sprees,” which is when they let soldiers form tribes for 24 hours and compete to kill people, the idea being to winnow the weak from the general population. They also are increasing neighborhood patrols, and in particular, they seem to be looking specifically for Pressia.
Pressia, Partridge, and Bradwell are about to have their worlds collide, and in the process, everything they thought they knew will get upended.
Discussion: There is not one aspect of this book that is not stimulating. The author has taken the usual dystopia format and transformed it with China-Mieville-imaginative style, turning it into a nightmarish landscape with astounding creativity and realistic social and political developments.
The horrors of the pre-Detonation world are not overlooked by Baggott either. Of particular note is the “Feminine Feminists” movement, advocating dedication to home and family, whose female members must be covered head to toe in whole-body hosery.
Baggott’s story poses many questions, including: What happens to the human spirit when the world has gotten so deformed? Can love and goodness survive a world turned dark and brutal? At what point does hope seem quixotic? This book offers up a rich array of answers through some unforgettable characters.
Evaluation: Although this is only the first of a trilogy, I would not hesitate to read this book as soon as you can get your hands on it. It is head-and-shoulders above most of the other dystopias you will read, and one of the most unique stories generally I have read in a long time.
Published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2012
Note: Pure just blew me away, but it isn’t the first time this author has done that to me. The first was with her middle grade book (for heaven’s sakes!), The Prince of Fenway Park (see my review here), which actually had me jumping up and down as the denouement approached! This author, who writes poetry and essays as well as other books under the names Bridget Asher and N. E. Bode, is very talented, and I think she is well worth your time if you have not yet experienced her work.