A girl is found on the outskirts of a pitiful, broken town. She repeats the same lines endlessly, no matter what she is thinking, what she is feeling, unable to say anything other than the message she has been programmed to deliver. Once one of the “wretches” living a miserable life in an irradiated land, she is now perfect, made “pure” and returned to the unprotected land outside the sanctified Dome as a promise of what can be done to those who have suffered from the Detonations, when there was an “explosion of the sun. Everything became iridescent. Everything broke open as if objects and humans all contained light. It was the brightest entry into darkness.”
Julianna Baggott’s Fuse is the follow-up to her wildly successful earlier novel Pure, and second in a trilogy. Which means the first worry for fans will be whether Fuse suffers from middle book syndrome or not — a common enough problem with a planned trilogy. So it is a relief to see that Baggott seems to have tackled that well; Fuse never flags, nor feels like a filler book. It is a solid bit of adventure storytelling, just as Pure was. There is major action here: battle scenes, romance, development of the older characters and a few new additions. The main characters continue to navigate the Deadlands that “were incinerated during the Detonations ... stripped bare and still are — no trees, no new vegetation, only the remains of a crumbled highway, rust-rotted cars, melted rubber, toppled tollbooths.” The world-building that began with such great promise in Pure continues to deliver in Fuse, with this new world’s grotesqueries once again startling. There are some powerful instances of Baggott’s skills in creating a fascinating, horrifying landscape in Fuse, with further development of the environment of those left behind to suffer the Detonations. She writes, “It’s like the city has grown a layer of movable skin — a clicking black scrim that’s covering everything in sight — the hunched buildings, the broken walls, the plywood roofs on handmade lean-tos. Pressia closes her eyes, but the clicking sounds like the eyes of a thousand dolls.”
The plot moves forward fast, with each of the major characters from Pure still represented by their individual perspective in alternating chapters, the “wretches” Pressia and El Capitan (with his ever present, almost parasitical brother Helmud), and the “pures” Partridge and Lyda. All of Baggott’s characters have grown tremendously in Fuse and it is no longer possible to pick one of them as the single protagonist, with the narrative divided equally between the four. Another important character is Bradwell, the haunted boy with birds in his back, who is not given his own bit of the narrative but who remains the most obviously heroic figure in the lot, determined to remain true to who he is, no matter what he has become. Baggott’s choice of perspectives is interesting — unlike Bradwell, none of the others are entirely unambiguous: none of them are evil, per se, but we don’t know what they’ll do to survive, because survive they must. This is no longer just the story of Pressia, the girl with a doll’s head fused to her hand, but of this entire little group of characters and the world they are trying to rebuild together, forming bonds in the most adverse of circumstances. “We’re making each other,” says one, “into the people we should become.”
The lead characters come across two valuable items in Fuse that will change everything, the flow of information and the future of their world. Both will propel the story further and send it hurtling towards book three. These are the vials Pressia and Partridge’s mother has given them that hold a possible correction for the deformities caused by the Detonations — the first step to an antidote, as it were — and the black boxes Bradwell has found and is slowly extracting information from. Where this information will lead them remains to be seen, though things happen hard and fast in Fuse. There is a great deal of movement — both for the narrative and physically for the characters, with travel outside of the Deadlands — back to the Dome for some, and even further away for the others. Fuse is, however, not a stand-alone novel, but with Pure having been as good as it was, why wouldn’t one want to read it first?
Baggott continues not just her world-building but also with questions about body modifications and post-humanism in Fuse. The Dome continues to genetically engineer soldiers and “fix” any personalities who don’t fit in. The mad, sad Iralene who Partridge befriends in the Dome is the best of the new characters — a brittle, broken woman whose natural development is suspended for hours each day in an attempt to curb her aging process. Iralene is the perfect example of the nature of Pure and Fuse’s true villain — Willux, the leader of the Dome, whose complete obsession with longevity and control over the human body has resulted in so much destruction. Iralene may not be a “wretch” physically, but she is perhaps the most damaged of Baggott’s characters.
There is a strange, frightening instance in Fuse, when El Capitan encounters a town full of “wretches” who worship the Dome that houses the very same people who left half the population to suffer the Detonations, causing the creation of the Deadlands and the “wretches” themselves. He is disgusted by their obeisance to the Dome but when he voices this thought, he is asked, “What would you have us worship instead?” Here, it is clear just how much power the Dome truly has over those it has reduced to desperate, abject grotesques — to destroy people, to leave them with debilitating deformities, to fight hideous dangers, and yet to have their utter reverence simply because they have nothing else is the absolute dream of imperialism. Baggott’s vision is frightening and terribly, painfully human.
By Julianna Baggott