Julianna Baggott (www.juliannabaggott.com)
Headline Books (www.headline.co.uk)
As a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I am always excited to see what new worlds can spring forth from the minds of writers whose contemplations all start at the same point: what if the world as we know it ended? In Pure, Julianna Baggott gives us a vision of a post-nuclear world where the survivors are split into two groups: within the sealed Dome, the Pure, a group of carefully selected people and their offspring who have survived the nine-year period completely unscathed, and unaffected by the Detonations; outside the Dome, the scarred and mutated wretches, who wait for the day when the Dome will open, and their brethren will come to their aid.
Partridge Willux, a Pure, is convinced that his mother – who stayed behind to save others while the rest of her family escaped to the safety of the Dome – is still alive. He flees to the outside world, where he meets Pressia Belze, a sixteen-year-old girl who is on the run from the local militia. Along with the revolutionary, Bradwell, they set off in search of Partridge’s mother, through a wasteland that is as hostile to the natives as it is to the newcomer. And behind everything lies the Dome, whose leaders are less benevolent than most people think.
Baggott quickly introduces us to her world by effectively throwing us in at the deep end. Outside the Dome, the people are badly scarred and bear sometimes horrific mutations caused, we learn, from nanotechnology used in the bombs, designed to make the victims fuse with the world around them. We quickly discover that even within the wider group of wretches, there are plenty of sub-castes: people like Pressia, her hand replaced with the head of the doll she was holding during the Detonations, or Bradwell fused with the handful of birds that were nearby; the Groupies, people fused with others, becoming a single entity; the Dusts, fused with the ground around them and attacking anyone who walks too close. The ever-present ash covers everything, making this a dull and dirty world where just making it through another day is cause for celebration.
Meanwhile, within the Dome, we find a different picture: here there are no scars, and no mutations. Boys are trained in the Academy, and receive “coding” – physical and mental enhancements designed to prepare them for the inevitable day when they will retain control of the world that has been cleansed for them. Here is a sterile world, where individual thought is frowned upon and anyone not toeing the party line ends up in rehabilitation centres, their rights removed.
There is, as you might expect from the first book in a trilogy of this kind, a lot of world-building in Pure. But there are very personal stories at its heart, and it’s easy to engage with the three central characters, all damaged to a greater or lesser degree and all searching for something – a parent, an identity, acceptance. Baggott handles these intimate stories with tenderness and more than a little (often black) humour, while never losing sight of that bigger picture, or letting the reader forget just how messed up this new world is. The deformities of the people we meet on this journey are often grotesque (Pressia and Bradwell are two of the luckier specimens) but Baggott somehow prevents it from ever becoming comic or unconvincing; it’s a difficult trick to achieve when creating a grotesquery on this sort of scale.
There is a darker side to the novel, too; some shocks and scares that will prevent you getting too comfortable as you read. Post-apocalyptic fiction generally straddles the boundary between science fiction and horror. Pure is more of the former, but with enough of a sprinkling of the latter to make it interesting. This is a brutal and violent world, and Baggott does not shy away from this fact in her writing.
Pure has received glowing advance praise, and I will freely admit that it was the comparison to Justin Cronin’s The Passage that finally sold it to me. It’s an intelligent and entertaining piece that certainly deserves the comparison. It’s closer in tone and setting to Robert McCammon’s Swan Song and certainly no less well-written than that classic of the genre (second, for me, only to King’s The Stand). Personally, the interest now lies in finding out if Baggott can maintain this quality – and the fine balance between believability and self-caricature – over the course of the next two books in the series. Regardless, Pure works well as a standalone novel that is sure to become, along with The Passage, the benchmark against which all modern post-apocalyptic fiction is measured. It’s a must-read for fans of the genre, or anyone looking to see how much more the genre has to offer than the myriad zombie-filled satires that currently fill the horror section of our local bookshops.