Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Book Review: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Pros: interesting characters, minor romance elements, coming of age story

Cons: minor world-building nitpicks, Alina makes a terrible decision half way through

Bea has grown up in the pod, a conscientious rule follower and believer that the world can be brought back from the brink that was the Switch by husbanding the remaining trees and eventually letting the pod’s population out into the wider world.

Her best friend Quinn is a premium, able to afford extra oxygen, better food and other perks her auxiliary status parents can’t buy.  He’s not like other premiums though.  He’s nice and considerate of those in the lower echelons.  He plans a weekend trip for them outside the dome that keeps them safe - it will be Bea’s first time outside -, but things get complicated when they run into a girl he finds attractive, Alina.

Alina is a RAT, a member of the resistance movement in the pod.  She knows the lies the Breathe corporation tells pod dwellers, that plants can’t grow in the lower oxygen levels outside the dome and that humans can’t train themselves to survive outside the false environment, because she’s been to the Grove, where both things happen.  When stewards come to arrest her, she goes on the run.  Quinn and Bea help her get outside, an action that changes all of their lives.

I liked the protagonists.  The author did a great job of fleshing them out so their actions and reactions to things felt authentic.  They all grow as the book progresses, and their decisions impact their lives and the lives of others.

The premise of the book, that humans cut down trees and killed the oceans, reducing the oxygen levels in the atmosphere to such that humans can’t survive outside domes, is a horrifically plausible one.  As are some of the things that came out of that: the horrors Maude describes and the stratification of the pod.  Still, the timeline seems very short.  Only two generations have passed since the disaster, so most people would know someone who remembers Breathe’s promises that they’d someday leave the pods.  And yet, very few people seem to question what’s happening in the pod.  

The army was sufficiently creepy, obeying orders that make them complicit in the continuation of pod existence.  It seems an awful lot of people know that plants can grow outside and are willing to kill them.  I would have expected more resistance recruits from their ranks.  Yes, they’d get perks from being in the army and probably threats against rebellion, but it’s still one hell of a secret to keep and ultimately to their own - and their descendants - detriment.  

I was surprised that those who set up the grove didn’t set up alternate locations for growing trees at the same time.  Knowing they were being hunted and having only one place with trees seems almost as bad as having no places with trees.  I would have expected that their main objective, to replant and let the trees slowly return oxygen levels to normal, requires as many trees as they can grow, in as many places as they can grow them.  Yes, that means finding suitable locations to set up, but surely they could open a string of stadiums and theatres, spreading out a few days walk from each other, away from the pod.  Once the trees are going they wouldn’t need much care, beyond a water and light source.

The army would also have to be pretty on top of things for them to kill all weeds and plants popping up.  Granted, they really only have to worry about the area around the dome where tourists camp, as few people would see anything beyond a day or two’s walk, as they would then either know about the Grove or not have enough oxygen to get back to the pod in time.

Alina makes one decision that sets a lot of other events in motion, a decision she must have known would have serious negative consequences, and yet she doesn’t seem to question the wisdom of it.  I’ll discuss this more in the spoiler section below.

The ending surprised me, both with its brutality and its leniency.  Quinn’s dad seems to act somewhat out of character from what he’s done through the rest of the book, both in dealing with the resistance, and his son.

These are all minor complaints that I didn’t really think about until I was writing my review.  On the whole I greatly enjoyed this book.  It’s fast paced, with minor romance and coming of age  

*** Spoiler Section ***

The decision I’m talking about with Alina is stealing the tank.  It should be obvious to her that the army will come after them after such a serious theft, but somehow she doesn’t consider that this act will start a war and bring the army down on the glade.  I was surprised by how long it took the army to locate the glade, regardless of Quinn’s lies.  Though I guess an abandoned city could have thousands of likely hideout locations - any large building could have sufficed, since the army didn’t necessarily know they were looking for a building large enough to house fully grown trees.

I really didn’t understand why Quinn’s dad let the rebels go at the end.  Yes, there was trouble back at the pod, but the rebels were in front of him.  All he needed to do was shoot them and that problem at least would have been solved.  Or reduced.

It seems that killing the protagonist’s parents in YA dystopian novels has become quite the trend.  Are authors doing it because it’s ‘expected’ or is it still meant to be a surprise twist or a push for the protagonist to go off and rebel and whatnot without fear for what will happen to those left behind?

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