Sunday, November 4, 2012


Breathe, by Sarah Crossan, seems to be one of those young adult post-apocalyptic dystopias that's hot on people's radar right now. The premise is that the world has run out of oxygen, which is sort of unique. I've read stories where the air is poisoned or where low oxygen is just one of many other bad things. But to have oxygen be as valuable as gold, where only the rich can even afford to exercise and oxygen use is taxed, that was a take I hadn't seen before. That makes this book stand out because, honestly, the rest of it is pretty run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic, dystopian plot. The people live in a bubble, literally. Their lives are regulated. There's a resistance. When so many stories are so similar these days, you have to have something that stands out. Regulated oxygen is a nice setting for a story, but the plot itself has to be engaging. It's not that this one isn't, but there were road blocks to my complete enjoyment.

First of all, the characters have to be intriguing. I have to care about them. I have to care about what they care about. There were two major obstacles I had to hurdle to get there.

One, the first thing you get to know about the characters is who is in love with whom. Quinn likes Alina, but Alina likes Abel. And Bea likes Quinn. Love triangles galore! It was once pointed out to me that the love triangle is an overused plot device, and the more I read young adult fiction, the more I agree. Even The Hunger Games, good stuff that it is, suffers from this malady. It does make for interesting conflict and can be done well (I'd argue that The Hunger Games has one of the better triangles.), but when you're already wary about it and it's the first thing you notice in a book, it's something that's hard to overlook. It's also not a very good way to introduce characters. If all I know about Bea is that she loves a guy who loves someone else, I'm going to think she's a fool. If I'm introduced to other aspects of her character first, by the time that bombshell is dropped on me, I'm likely to be more forgiving. The person you date does not define you. Let's not send that message to our young people. Okay, sorry, getting off the soap box now....

The second obstacle to getting to know the characters is the narration. The book is split into three separate points of view, different characters alternating the narration of different chapters. That's okay when the voices are vastly different from each other, when you begin a new chapter and know (without having to refer to the title name) that it's a new character. Quinn, Bea, and Alina narrate. I'm not sure Quinn is the best choice of name for a male character. The voice of his chapters does stand out more than that of the girls', so that helped, but I had to remind myself he was a he at first. His character's uniqueness is also helped by the fact that he is the only rich kid of the trio. Both the girls are from the poor sector, so it was especially hard to differentiate between them at first. One's with the resistance, and one is not, but even so, put them side by side and I couldn't have told you which was which. Later on in the story, it gets better. Each becomes her own character eventually; just the beginning is confusing. My husband thinks that if you are going to have different narrators, each should sound distinct. I agree.

Aside from narration and main characters, there are a couple of other little things I have problems with. One regards morality, mainly Good vs. Evil. I like the delineation to be clear. As per some other dystopian fiction (SPOILER ALERT for The Hunger Games, if you haven't read the whole series yet), the resistance is played as the lesser of two evils, sort of like District 13 in The Hunger Games. At least, I thought that was the direction the author was going with it, but by the end of Breathe, the characters act like it's no big deal that the resistance can be cruel, too, like it's just what it has to do to keep order. I feel like the characters start to make a statement about it when we're first introduced to the resistance, but later, any sort of moral commentary fizzles away. I don't like the resistance leader; she isn't a great Good Guy, but I don't think she is supposed to be a Bad Guy. She just confuses me. To top it off, I feel like the book resolves the conflict the characters have with her too cheaply. I really don't like the leader's young sidekick either, but she is a great character, one of the kind you love to hate. It looks like the series will continue with her development, which could be interesting.

Overall, is the book worth the hype? If you're reading for romance (minor SPOILER ALERT), the love triangles of the beginning resolve themselves without drama, almost so that you wonder what they were there for in the first place. The characters, romance or no, are so-so but likeable enough. It's dealing with the lack of oxygen that continues to be the most intriguing aspect of this story. And even though the story copycats some other similar reads, I was still entertained. Three stars.

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