Julianna Baggott’s “Burn” — final book in her best-selling Pure trilogy — is not the kind of book you can’t put down. It’s the kind of book you must put down, but only because you need to process the complexity of the world and characters.
The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic United States. The bombs set off nearly ten years ago had a unique cocktail that fused human tissue on the molecular level with whatever the human was standing near when the bomb (described as “sun on sun on sun”) detonated. Those who weren’t vaporized live with horrific deformities and “fusings.” While most of the teenage characters remember very little about the day the bombs went off, they all live with the consequences. Pressia, one of the main characters, has a doll’s head instead of a hand.
Bradwell, another main character, has three living birds in his back. El Capitan, the third holocaust survivor, is fused with his younger brother Helmud, who rides forever on El Capitan’s back. The other two main characters, Lyda and Partridge, were some of the chosen “Pures” who made it to the safety of the Dome.
The Dome, led by Partridge’s father, orchestrated the bombings in order to create a new civilization with only the “best” humans. Burn is about exposing the Dome’s lies and reuniting the outside world with the Pures within the Dome. Pressia, the idealist of the group, wants to partner with the Dome and use its advanced science to cure the outside survivors (or “wretches”) of their deformities. Bradwell wants the Pures in the Dome to suffer for their crimes. El Capitan agrees with Bradwell until the consequences for the brutalities he committed as a militia leader catch up with him. Lyda wants to return to the outside world where she had the freedom to make her own choices.
While the book continues to alternate between the five main characters’ points-of-view,
Partridge often gets the most ink because even when the chapter isn’t from his point-of-view, the other characters are talking about him. Even with this increased focus, he becomes less of a character and more of a symbol of ineffective government. He has the best intentions, but his lack of experience and inability to stand up for himself create disaster. He is also used as a vessel to examine the enduring dark side of human nature, including our ability to concentrate on the vapid in order to ignore the suffering of others, create a scapegoat when the suffering becomes overwhelming, and attempt to rationalize selfish decisions.
The first book was about the children discovering the sins and lies of their parents’ generation and their own roles in creating a better future for themselves, and the second focused on them transitioning into young adults and dealing with themes of love, trust, and betrayal.
Burn focuses less intimately on the main characters and brings in larger themes such as religion, the ethics of cloning and designer babies, and the dangers of creating virtual reality worlds that eclipse the actual world. The end of the book brings in points of view from minor characters that distract from the main characters’ storylines, but the main characters’ arcs are all resolved.
Other dystopian young adult fantasy enthusiasts who might want to compare the trilogy to the Hunger Games shouldn’t. While both elements are present in the Pure trilogy, this series doesn’t focus heavily on violence and the excess of the upper social classes. Baggott’s science is more real, her relationships between the characters are deeper, and her flair for creating the feeling of the uncanny builds a much stronger world. Her research on molecular cloning, nanotechnology, and the hellish aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is extensive and gives the entire series a remarkable layer of depth. So much depth, in fact, that when you finish Burn, this world may seem less like a fantasy than you’re comfortable with.