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Karen Krossing
Second Story Press, 245 pages

Karen Krossing
Karen Krossing grew up in Thornhill, Ontario. Her first novel for teens, Take the Stairs, has been shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association's White Pine Award, 2005. Karen was a book editor and technical writer before she began writing fiction. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters.

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A review by Donna McMahon

Lenni is a teenager living in Dawn, a planned settlement in the "New Canadian North" populated only by healthy people who are genetically unaltered. The corporation "Purity" runs the town and constantly polices people's genomes to make sure they aren't making illegal DNA alterations. They are preserving the purity of the race.

Lenni knows that she's lucky not to live in the dangerous, chaotic Beyond, and fortunate to attend the elite Academy of Intelligence. But she feels stifled by all the rules and the uniformity and longs to spend her time focusing on her artwork and her odd, burgeoning talent for seeing inside people.

She instinctively keeps her talent secret; still, she is taken by surprise when the Purity police arrest her on suspicion that she is a dangerous genetic construct.

This is a good set-up for a novel, but follow-through is lacking, and the single biggest problem is plotting. Throughout Pure, characters walk from one stagy conversation to another with little plausible reason, and take actions that make no sense. For instance, the novel opens with Lenni selling portraits in the park, despite the acute danger and embarrassment involved, because she saw herself doing it in a dream. That might be plausible either if Lenni seemed flaky enough to act out dreams, or if we eventually discovered some plot-forwarding reasons behind the dream, but neither is the case.

In this book, conversations are staged in public or private or overheard entirely according to the needs of the author rather than any kind of story logic. For instance, the Purity police are supposed to be menacing and oppressive, but they don't notice that Lenni is turning up music in her hospital room and whispering to visitors to evade audio surveillance. And Lenni is so dense she can't even think of typing important information on her "slate" (laptop computer), showing it to somebody and erasing it, rather than talking. Argh! (This must seem especially lame to the text messaging generation.)

Further, Lenni doesn't move the plot. In fact, except for wrestling with her unique healing gift, she spends the whole book reacting to things that are done to her. This might be plausible, but it doesn't make for a good YA story. And I found her reactions sometimes subdued for a fifteen-year-old. If my mother had had my boyfriend expelled from school for the crime of kissing me on a park bench, I would have done more than shout a bit.

There are curious omissions in this book, too. Lenni is never physically described, her status in the ruthless hierarchy of high school is unclear, and she doesn't appear to worry about exams or do any homework even though the school is extremely competitive and her parents are pushing her to succeed.

Genetics is a key part of the story, but other SF elements are largely perfunctory and poorly thought out. Examples of climate change struck me as improbable -- for instance, if the weather in Northern Canada became as hot as described, there wouldn't be a boreal forest left. I couldn't see any reason for shortages of power to run people's "slates" given technology that's already available now. And the examples of genetic engineering appear to be didactically motivated rather than researched for any kind of plausibility.

Which brings me to the preachiness. There are a lot of well-meaning speeches in this book that struck me as more likely to appeal to parents than teenagers. The author doesn't seem to trust her readers to "get it" so she does a lot of telling where she should simply show.

An SFnal element that works and demonstrates how this could have been a stronger novel is "lifewort," a plant engineered to produce oil for biodegradable plastics. Lifewort is resistant to salt, drought, heat, freezing, insects, viruses, and so forth, so when it starts invading and destroying ecosystems, it's remarkably difficult to eradicate. And Lenni's father, who designed it, doesn't question whether it's a good thing -- he just views the damage it's causing as a technical challenge.

That's a far better example of genetic engineering gone bad than silliness like a "squog," a cross between a squirrel and a dog "designed to hunt for nuts, shell them, and return them to their owners." (sigh)

On the bright side, I liked some of the characters in this book, especially Lenni's whiney, manipulative mother. Karen Krossing makes an effort to build characters who are not what they first seem, and who embody contradictory elements.

I'm not surprised that librarians and mainstream reviewers are praising Pure, but as a long time SF reader who started out in my school library reading YAs, I wasn't much impressed, nor do I think most young readers will be.

Copyright © 2006 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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