Note: There are big spoilers for the first book in this series, but none for this one.
Before I started this book, I re-read the first book of the trilogy, Pure (see my review, here.) As much as I loved the first book, I thought it was even better the second time through!
As I said in my first review, 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 seven 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.
But not everyone is fused. Before the detonations, some citizens got to go inside the Dome, an experimental environment constructed to provide sustainable living in the event of nuclear or biological attacks or environmental disasters. Those inside survived intact, and are known by those outside the Dome as “Pures.” Those outside are known as “Wretches.”
In Book One, Pressia, now 16, joins forces with a couple of other “Wretches” to escape the OSR – a vicious paramilitary organization that rules the outside. One of them is Bradwell, a handsome revolutionary who has birds fused to his back. El Capitan, or “Cap” is a former OSR agent who has his younger brother Helmud permanently around his back. And this motley group is improbably joined by a couple of escaped “Pures,” including Pressia’s half-brother Partridge, and Lyda, the girl he loves.
In Book Two, Baggott switches her focus from world-building to character-building. In addition to those we already know, another strong woman, Iralene, joins the cast.
The characters are still struggling against evil, but they are also struggling with the subject of love. If you love someone, you can lose that someone. So is falling in love a sign of weakness or a sign of courage? And what about the people who are fused together? You can feel a deep love, but also a deep resentment because you can never be alone or have privacy or not have to take care of another. There is also the consideration of love as an idea – one of the characters loves the way it sounds to say “I love you” and the way it feels to think that you are someone “in love.”
Two of the male characters share a different conception of love: love is what makes us become or want to become someone else for the other. Ironically, these two characters also come to love each other – it is the love of friendship, the love of having been through thick and thin together, and learning to rely on and trust one another.
Partridge is in a particularly trying situation with respect to love, on all fronts. He knows that his father is the epitome of evil, and yet he is his father. At some level, he still craves parental love. And he also is unsure of who he loves romantically, or why.
As far as what happens in Book Two, the characters are racing to find a way learn how to survive, in spite of growing obstacles. The surprises in this installment take the form of character developments we did not expect. They are better than they knew.
Discussion: Baggott is very talented, and shows courage, I think, in writing dialogue that may not be “literary” but is so true to life you feel every squirm and wince and smile and tear that would accompany it. I love, for example, this scene between Pressia and Bradwell in Book One:
“‘So…,’ Pressia says.
‘Why did you come after me if it wasn’t for my grandfather?’
‘You know why.’
‘No I don’t. You tell me.’ They’re so close that she feels the heat of his body.”
I also like Baggott’s commentary on the state of the world. In Book One, Bradwell and Patridge are talking about the cruelty and devastation of the detonations. Bradwell says:
“You know what I think sometimes, Partridge? … I think we were already dying of superdiseases. The sanatoriums were full. Prisons were being converted to house the infected. The water was already shot through with oil. And if not that, there was plenty of ammo, uprisings in the cities. There was the corn-fed grief, the unbearable weight of pie fillings. We were choking on pollutants, radiation. Dying one charred lung at a time. Left to our own devices, we were shooting ourselves with holes, burning alone. Without the Detonations, we’d have dwindled and finally clubbed each other to bright bloody death. So they speeded that up, right? That’s all.”
What a brilliant commentary. Note the phrase: “the unbearable weight of pie fillings.” It’s worthy of Chabon: clever and loaded with multiple meaning; expressing an essay’s worth of arguments in just six words.
I should note that the females in this book are exceptional. (So are the male characters, but that is more the norm, sad to say.) Baggott’s females are intelligent, fierce, resourceful, and capable of much more than we think when we first meet them. Perhaps the author is poking us for gender expectations, and making us aware of how we project presumptions onto characters based on their sex.
Butterflies are a recurrent theme. They are lovely and fragile. They don’t even seem to have much of a “function.” Yet they still exist, despite everything. They fill the need for people to believe in something beautiful again.
Evaluation: I think Baggott is brilliant, and her characters rich and warm. I want to take care of them all. But I think her females would look at me defiantly and say, “we can take of ourselves!”
Published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2013