[WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers about the premise behind Pure's setting.]
When I first read about Pure, it sounded a lot like Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular Hunger Games series, but for adults. As it turns out, that’s a fair description, but it entails as many negatives as positives. Both series (Pure is the first in, of course, a trilogy) follow teenage girls in post-apocalyptic dystopias who find themselves thrust into central roles in the fight between the haves and the have-nots.
The Hunger Games offers a simple premise and structure, with obvious good guys and bad guys. The main character, Katniss, has to survive a battle royale fight to the death with 23 other teenagers. The rich people who orchestrate the battle are evil, and the poor children forced to fight are good (mostly).
Along the way, Katniss’s progress can be tracked by how many children still survive, and Collins offers regular twists and turns that propel the plot. Collins’s prose is plain and slightly juvenile, as should be expected, and you could call just about any facet of the series “simplistic” without stretching the truth. The characters, the setting, the way the action plays out, the moral questions with easy answers—all of these aspects of The Hunger Games are as uncomplicated as they are primitively satisfying.
By contrast, Pure offers a messier, more tangled, much less satisfying dystopian world. Pure’s heroine, Pressia, lives in a dilapidated barbershop, hiding out from the OSR, a vicious pseudo-army that press-gangs all children into service on their 16th birthday. Pressia is old enough to remember the nuclear war that ruined her country and killed her parents. The Detonations, as they are called, had a semi-magical effect: each person caught outside found themselves fused to whatever objects were near them at the fateful moment. Pressia has a doll’s head where her right hand should be, another boy has tiny wings on his shoulders from a pair of birds who are now part of him forever.
The only people who survived without such deformities were those lucky enough to escape to a place called the Dome. Those intact people are called Pures. While the denizens of the Dome claim to be waiting to help the “wretches” out in the waste, nobody really believes them.
Already this is a messy premise. There’s no good guy, only gradations of evil. The OSR routinely embarks on “killing sprees” during which they kill people indiscriminately for practice. The miscellaneous other factions that Pressia meets along her quest each have their own twisted rules—one group of mothers kills every male they encounter. The people of the Dome, as it turns out, carefully orchestrated the Detonations, even programming the bombs to fuse people with objects so as to artificially create a subspecies to serve as a lower class.
I like the fact that everyone has some blood on their hands, especially in contrast to Katniss’s ability to more or less retain her innocence even as she wins a series of fights to the death. But when so many characters and factions in Pure are utterly amoral, none of them are very likable or relatable.
Furthermore, the exaggerated sociopathy of the Dome’s executives makes the whole premise feel cartoonish. I’m no genocidist, but it seems like you could find a more targeted way to eliminate 95% of the earth’s population without crippling your food supply and making it so you have to live in a bunker for the next six generations.
This lack of reasonable and/or heroic factions with which to side also has a disappointing effect on the plot. Pressia and an escapee from the Dome meet up after a little while, and then they go off to… do something. It’s unclear. Find his mother? Maybe. Find an alternative to the OSR? Kind of. In the mean time, mostly, they aimlessly wander around the wasteland, having small interactions with various factions, and slowly collecting individuals who have soured on the Dome’s hegemony.
Eventually, of course, Pressia and her companions will fight against the Dome, but that isn’t even under discussion in this first installment. The Pure trilogy will not be a set of stories that can each stand on their own, it will be three volumes telling one long story. Which means that this book feels the first act of a vast fantasy novel—a long wander through a beautiful, ruined wasteland for the sole purpose of setting up the action of later installments.
It is, however, beautiful. Baggott writes better prose than Collins, even if her portrayal of emotions is every bit as overwrought. Baggott’s violence is of the adult variety, too: much gorier and more graphic than Collins’s.
In the end, though, there simply aren’t enough payoffs for all of Baggott’s wanderings. If you wait until the entire trilogy comes out and then you crush through all ~1500 pages in one go, my guess is Pure won’t disappoint. But if you’re fresh off the Hunger Games, this first book won’t scratch the same itch. As it turns out, simplistic and satisfying feels a whole lot better than complex and pointless.