“Breathe” by Sarah Crossan

As I mentioned a few reviews ago, I recently started volunteering in a local library that I didn’t previously frequent all that often. The advantage of this? I didn’t know the YA section back to front like I do at my usual library haunts, so for the first couple of weeks I was there, I read all sorts of things. Among them was Breathe (and later, its sequel Resist).

breathe

I’m a little disappointed that this wasn’t a standalone — I didn’t realise it was the start to a series and while it isn’t unsatisfying as instalments go, I was hoping for more completion. Instead I have an open ending and a nagging need to hunt down the next book, which should probably be a good sign.

My feelings about this book were actually kind of mixed. It’s full of interesting worldbuilding that’s been well thought through, even down to decorations — shells, for example, are a sign of wealth because they mean you can afford to leave the Pod and travel all the way to the coast. Yay details! I’m always impressed by details, because I suck at them. The worldbuilding was this book’s central factor (it basically is the premise) and its strength.

However, it also has unnecessary romance (in my opinion) that bordered on a love triangle in places (though didn’t quite go all the way), which was frustrating. It would have been just as compelling without it, and I wouldn’t have been existing in my permanent state of aro exasperation.

The plot’s more complex than the blurb made me fear, and most of the characters were engaging, though I wanted to slap Quinn for most of the first half of the book. I’m also still confused about Maude and exactly what role she was playing, but perhaps that’s my fault for finishing the book at 1am. Some of the resistance members were pretty interchangeable in my head, but I guess if they turn up in book two they’ll have a chance to develop.

My main issue with the book is that it’s told from a variety of first person POVs and the chapter title is pretty much the only way to distinguish them. As a forgetful reader who also never reads chapter titles… this meant I kept having to double back to realise who was speaking. I think for a book with first person switching perspectives, the voices need to be a lot more distinct than these were. In a few places they had differences but for the most part, I couldn’t tell. Usually, if you can’t figure it out from an isolated paragraph, it’s probably not distinct enough, and there were moments when I thought an isolated PAGE wouldn’t have helped. That said, late night read, doesn’t help.

I did enjoy the book, and like I said, the plot had more complications than I expected, so it wasn’t entirely predictable. However, what with the romance and so on, it fell a little too neatly into tropey YA categories — it felt somewhat like a generic dystopia, with an underprivileged but somehow unique teenage girl and a more privileged boy with links to the corrupt establishment learning the truth about the world they live in and the oppression they’re facing. Plus the whole way the romance developed, and just generally, it lacked the originality that would have redeemed the similar voices. It wasn’t a carbon copy of any particular YA dystopia I’ve read before, but it was similar to enough of them that it didn’t stand out.

I also couldn’t figure out where it was set — not even the country, for the longest time, though I eventually decided it was probably Britain. (Having now read book two, I can confirm this, and that my suspicion of it taking place in the vicinity of what is now London was alsor correct.) Again, the sense of voice didn’t help create place, not even a fictional one, and that’s something I really enjoy. So I was a bit sad about that.

While I don’t like it now as much as I did the first time I read it, if recommending books about people living in enclosed cities because they believe the air outside to be unsafe to breathe, I’d probably go for Stephen Lawhead’s Empyrion books before this, just because it has more depth. (It’s also a whole lot longer and weirder and allegorical, but that’s not the point.) For those in search of a lighter YA alternative, though, this is a decent enough book. It just didn’t entirely click with me.

Rating: ***

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