Breathe, by Sarah Crossan, is an unremarkable new entry in the teen dystopia field. Its premise is relatively simple: in the far future, the world’s oxygen level has dropped so far that people are relegated to living in oxygenated “pods,” where “Premiums” get all the oxygen they want and the commoners have to get by with far less. One result of this disparity is that the average person has to carefully moderate their physical activity (there are “speeding” laws with regard to walking) while the Premiums can go for a nice little job with their personal oxygen tanks. The company that controls the oxygenating process, Breathe, controls the pod. It will come as no surprise that they’re just a little corrupt and power-hungry.
We’re introduced to this world via three teen points of view. Alina is a commoner who is also a member of the resistance, a group trying to take down Breathe as well as break the pod’s monopoly on human existence, both by long-term re-oxygenation of the atmosphere and by short-term retraining of people to enable them to survive in the outside. She’s embittered and wide awake to the realities of this world, though not utterly aware of how far the resistance will go. Quinn is the son of a higher-up Premium and is being groomed to take his own place among the elites. Bea is his commoner best friend. Both have so far blithely accepted all they’ve been taught of their society’s workings, though that will soon change once their paths intersect with Alina’s. As one might expect, the seemingly inevitable triangle forms: Bea wants to be with Quinn while Quinn, oblivious to Bea’s desire, wants to be with Alina. Alina, meanwhile, just wants to be with the Resistance.
As is usual with books I don’t much care for, this will be a relatively quick review, as I don’t like to belabor a book’s flaws or bash an author who has at least accomplished completing a novel, even if it wasn’t a very good one. To begin with, Breathe’s plot is not particularly compelling or surprising. The three characters are introduced one after the other and then quickly end up outside the pod together. In short order they are facing off with Breathe’s soldiers and running into the Resistance, though there was never any real sense of danger or urgency with regard to what might happen to them. Worse, many of the violent encounters felt a bit cartoonish and barely sketched in.
The worldbuilding is also pretty sketchy. I had a problem with the general premise as it was presented, and while there are occasional flashes of sharp details, mostly in the early sections, overall the setting and society never come alive as real constructs. The same is true of the characters, who do change but in pretty much predictable fashion. None of the side characters, save one (an old woman whose been outside for some time), feel fully fleshed out, playing more as types or plot necessities than real people (one might get my pick for worst naming of the year, a villain named “Cain Knavery”). The prose is mostly pedestrian throughout, rarely rising above merely functional and at times its simplistic, repetitive nature was distractingly noticeable.
Breathe ends with some resolution but with a clear path forward. I, however, will not be picking up book two. For me, Breathe failed across the board: character, story, setting, style. I recommend passing.