Today, we bring you two reviews for pretty well-known books that for some reason we hadn’t picked up yet. Before the onslaughts of “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU HAVEN’T READ THAT?!” begin, let us just offer our profuse apologies.
We were ignoramuses.
But we’ve rectified that. Ladies and Gents, please accept these reviews as atonement: we give you our “WHY HAVEN’T I READ THESE BOOKS!?!” Day.
Thea’s Pick: THE UGLIES TRILOGY by Scott Westerfeld
Genre: Science Fiction (Dystopic), Young Adult
Stand alone or series: Though it began as a trilogy, there is also a fourth book titled Extras, as well as a reference/factoid book for the Uglies universe called From Bogus to Bubbly. The core trilogy is comprised of: Uglies, Pretties, and Specials.
Uglies (Book 1)
Publisher: Simon Pulse (US) / Simon & Schuster Children’s (UK)
Publication Date: February 2005 (US) / January 2006 (UK)
Paperback: 448 pages
So. First things first – WHY did it take me so damn long to read this novel?
I actually have a reason. Seriously. My discomfort with Uglies began when I picked up the book at leisure in the bookstore a few years ago and read the back blurb and was immediately taken aback for Uglies sounded suspiciously similar to a favorite Twilight Zone episode of mine: “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.”
In “Number 12” we are transported to the then-distant future of the year 2000, where at the age of 19 everyone undergoes The Transformation – they pick a modeled body for themselves and get to look beautiful and be happy for the rest of their significantly extended lives. See, back in the roiling stew of hatred and disease that was the 20th century, a new society emerged in which people discovered how to eliminate all wars, discrimination, and other social ills: the elimination of ugliness. Those that undergo the operation are pliant, happy, and perpetually beautiful. That is, until one girl decides that she decides she doesn’t want to be beautiful and happy all the time – Marilyn wants to read books, she wants passion, she wants the whole range of human emotion, and she wants to stay “ugly.” After her best friend Val undergoes her Transformation, Marilyn’s resolve to stay ugly is strengthened and she fights to escape before it is too late.
Compared to the blurb of Uglies, I wasn’t too thrilled to read an extended version of an already great Twilight Zone episode, and it kinda bothered me that Mr. Westerfeld didn’t reference or even mention it in passing. Not that I’m accusing anyone of anything – I’m of the “stories are discovered and evolve organically” mentality; plus, since reading Uglies there are many imaginative differences, and as the series progresses the books only get even better and far more original – but initially it seemed like some pretty heavy borrowing without referencing. (Since the publication of these books Mr. Westerfeld has posted about this episode on his blog. He says that he hadn’t seen the episode for years, and it wasn’t really a direct influence. Though there are a lot of similarities, he says making people pretty and sheeplike seems to be a common theme in SF – which is true and entirely possible. Still, the similarities bothered me more than just a little bit.)
Anyways! That’s why I was hesitant to read the book. Now you know.
You’ll also have surmised that I got over my feelings of discomfort and finally read the book…and I really liked it. I liked it so much that I changed this post from just a review of Uglies to a review of the original trilogy, because I couldn’t just stop Tally’s story at book one (especially not with that cliffhanger ending).
So onto the review proper: In a far future society, Tally Youngblood is on the cusp of her sixteenth birthday – when she will FINALLY become pretty. Her best friend Piers has already had his operation, and is happily nested in New Pretty Town and Tally is eager to move on, to be perpetually happy and beautiful and go to all the best parties and fit in with all the best cliques. That is, until she meets Shay, another ugly on the brink of turning sixteen. Shay is different than anyone Tally has ever met – she has a daredevil streak that rivals Tally’s, and is a wizard on the hoverboard (which she teaches to Tally). Following her promise for a great adventure, Shay and Tally sneak out of Uglytown and into the great Ruins surrounding their city. The Ruins are a relic of the Rusties – the humans that nearly destroyed the planet with their monstrous acts against nature, scorching the atmosphere, wastefully building their homes of stone and steel until the ultimate disaster of a virus destroyed all petroleum on the planet. It is then that Shay reveals that she knows someone that isn’t from any city like theirs, and that Shay plans on running away to join The Smoke, a society that lives in the wild, where no one turns pretty. Shay pleads with Tally to come with her, but Tally cannot bring herself to leave and be ugly forever. In hopes that before her birthday Tally might change her mind, Shay leaves her with a set of cryptic instructions on how to find The Smoke, and then Shay slips into the night.
Finally, Tally’s birthday arrives, but she’s not taken to the operating room. Instead, she’s whisked off to a part of the city to talk with a group that she never knew existed: Special Circumstances. It is here that she meets the cruelly beautiful Dr. Cable who presents Tally with a choice – either she helps Dr. Cable discover the location of the bothersome Smokies, or Tally stays an ugly forever. Heartbroken, Tally agrees to find the Smoke and sets off on a harrowing journey, following Shay’s instructions. When she finally reaches The Smoke, however, Tally starts to feel sympathetic to their cause. She meets and starts to have feelings for the mysterious David – the boy that brought Shay there in the first place. Tally has to make a choice again – give up the smoke and become pretty, or embrace this new life, and stay ugly forever.
Despite being a premise I was already very familiar with, I couldn’t dislodge Uglies from my hands whilst reading. Mr. Westerfeld might have taken an already established idea, but he managed to make it his own – imbuing his story with wonderful science fiction flourishes like solar-charged hoverboards, talking rooms, and innovations like dehydrated SpagBol. The most impressive thing about Uglies, in my opinion, was the pacing of the story and how effortlessly balanced it was despite virtually non-stop action. I love a good action scene, and when you throw hoverboards into the mix – well, suffice to say it is thrilling stuff. There’s significant danger with the terrifyingly beautiful Specials with their sharp features and pointed razor-teeth, and it becomes clear that the ruthless Dr. Cable and her super-engineered cronies will stop at nothing to keep their iron hold on the city and squash any rebels.
There’s also significant danger for Tally, as she must confront her warring emotions – to turn in her new friends, or to stay in the Smoke. Though initially I wasn’t much impressed with Tally (or for that matter, any of the characters), as the novel progresses and she really grapples with this issue of becoming pretty or staying just Tally, I got a glimpse of some hidden depth to the character. In Uglies, Tally makes some tough choices and shows a lot of grit – a precursor for the more fleshed-out character development to come in later novels. My only real problem with the characters in Uglies was how GOOD or BAD they are (i.e. David & the Smokies GOOD! Dr. Cable BAD!). There isn’t much subtlety or depth here – which also goes for thematic issues in the novel. Though there are ethical issues that arise in Uglies – the evils of fossil fuels, the downfalls of homogeneity, what the meaning of “pretty” or “ugly” is, the questionable nature of totalitarian regimes – they are barely grazed; mentioned but not explored.
Still, despite a true lack of depth, the book was fun and the many by-the-skin-of-your-teeth escapes and hoverboard chases, plus the non-stop action plotting were enough to catch my attention and have me eagerly wanting more. Recommended…but watch The Twilight Zone episode first.
Rating: 7 Very Good
Pretties (Book 2)
Publisher: Simon Pulse (US) / Simon & Schuster Children’s (UK)
Publication Date: November 2005 (US) / July 2006 (UK)
Paperback: 384 pages
In Pretties, Tally returns to the city with Shay and undergoes the dreaded operation – she becomes a Pretty. The operation changes more than her body and facial structure, however, and Tally becomes a Pretty-Head, concerned only with what clothes to wear, what groups to become a part of, and which parties to attend. But all that changes when a Smokie sneaks into New Pretty Town with a cure for Tally (as arranged in Uglies). Tally soon learns that with any strong emotion (fear, love, extreme excitement, hunger), she gains a clarity in her pretty-fogged head, and she and new friend Zane decide to split the two cure pills left behind by the Smokies. Soon, Zane and Tally are thinking clearly for the first time since their operations, but when Zane starts getting crippling headaches and his condition begins to deteriorate, Tally knows time is running out. She and Zane must escape, and find the Smokies once more.
In many ways, Pretties is a much deeper book, at least in terms of characters, than Uglies. Tally shakes off the fog of her brain lesions and becomes the heroine we met in the first book and bravely faces countless dangers in order to try and save Zane’s life. Although with less action than its predecessor, Pretties is similarly fast-paced and expertly plotted, with hardly a dull moment. There is no putting down this book once you’ve started it – I finished my copy in a few scant hours. The major highlight in this novel to me was the troubled relationship between Tally and Shay – both are pretty, but Shay begins to develop a nasty habit to gain her own mental clarity, and she remembers Tally’s betrayal with bitterness. In fact, Shay’s probably my favorite character in the entire series, because of her rage and her depth of feeling – while Tally reacts and allows situations to make her decisions for her (an incredibly annoying trait), Shay makes her own way. Though Shay’s decisions are questionable, I infinitely prefer her passion to Tally’s wishy-washiness and in many ways as a reader I could easily identify with Shay’s frustration with Tally’s character.
“You’re supposed to be my friend, Tally. I’ve done everything for you. I was the one who first told you about the Smoke. I was the one who introduced you to David. And when you came to New Pretty Town, I helped you become one of the Crims. Did it even occur to you to share the cure with me? It’s your fault I’m like this, after all!”
Tally shook her head. “There wasn’t time…I didn’t even –”
“No of course you didn’t,” Shay spat. “You barely even knew Zane, but he was the leader of the Crims, so hooking up with him was the next trick on your list. Just like David out in the Smoke. That’s why you split the cure with him.”
“It wasn’t like that!” Tally cried.
“You are like that, Tally. You have always been like that. No cure is going to make you any different — you were busy betraying people a ong time ago. You didn’t need any operation to make you selfish and shallow and full of yourself. You already were.” […] Shay pulled away and whispered fiercely, “I may be my pretty self again tomorrow, Tally. But I’ll remember this, I swear. No matter what sweet things I say to you, trust me. I am not your friend.”
Why can’t Shay be the heroine? Tally’s passivity is incredibly irritating, but I suppose that’s the safe way to play a heroine in this kind of series. I’m not ragging on Mr. Westerfeld, I simply feel that though there are a few tough decisions Tally has to make, she’s conveniently bailed out by plot devices countless times in this book (as well as in Uglies and Specials).
That said, I liked some of the other developments in Pretties, especially getting a look into New Pretty Town (though Pretty-Speak becomes grating after a while – “bubbly” quickly wears out its welcome after the hundredth time or so). I liked the addition of Zane and the romance between he and Tally – hello, love triangle! Of course there’s one of these! Both Zane and David are pretty swell guys, so Tally lucks out again. Another thing I appreciated was a deeper look at how Tally’s city operates and the rising surge of revolt that she and Zane help ignite in Pretty Town and with the younger uglies too. Dr. Cable and the Specials of course make another appearance, always there to thwart Tally’s efforts…leading once again to a cliffhanger ending. For all my annoyance with how everything simply seems to fall in place for Tally without too much conscious decision-making on her end, I really enjoyed Pretties, and immediately proceeded to the next book in the trilogy…
Rating: 7 Very Good
Specials (Book 3)
Publisher: Simon Pulse (US) / Simon & Schuster Children’s (UK)
Publication Date: May 2006 (US) / November 2006 (UK)
Paperback: 400 pages
Specials begins with a shock – Tally, champion of the Pretty Crims and former Smokie, has become a Special. Her bones replaced with ultra-light and strong ceramics, her fingernails and teeth razors, her blood infused with self-replicating nanobots, her senses and brain functions heightened to superhuman standards. Tally has become a human weapon, and the dreaded enemy of the Smoke. And she’s not just any old Special either; Tally becomes one of six in a team of Cutters under the leadership of Shay – Dr. Cable’s chosen few to find the New Smoke and bring it down at any cost. Though Tally loves the feeling of belonging with her new Cutter family (so named because of the self-inflicted cuts they make to sharpen their senses), she misses Zane and cannot stop worrying about him. Shay, noticing Tally’s hesitance and fear, makes a deal with her best friend – she’ll help Zane escape New Pretty Town and convince Dr. Cable that he should join the Cutters, and in return Tally will put away her doubts and questions for good, and together they will destroy the New Smoke forever. Their dangerous plan to break Zane out has some unforseen consequences of immense proportions, and the City itself lies on the brink of being overthrown – change is coming, but what will Tally do?
Specials is the most challenging of the three books in the trilogy, and for that and many other reasons, it’s easily my favorite of the bunch. How much of a person is Tally? How much of her is really her, and how much is the byproduct of all her surgeries and brain-tampering? Tally cannot go home again, and is irreparably changed forever by all that she has seen and done and become. And I’m cool with that. It’s a gutsy move that author Scott Westerfeld takes with this new invocation of Tally – but it’s by far the most honest and brutal look into a character I was growing short with in the first two books. Ugly, Pretty, Special, Tally finally finds her voice in this book and it’s not idealized or cookie cutter. I like that. I admire Mr. Westerfeld’s ballsiness in creating a heroine that is essentially a bad guy, and who is deeply morally conflicted.
In terms of themes, Specials also takes the cake as the most challenging of the three books – awakening all the pretties in the cities and liberating them from their totalitarian/Brave New World regimes is all well and good – but will humanity resort to violence and war? Environmental destruction to fuel their ever growing and unsustainable populations? Tally understands that freedom comes with consequences, and I like that Mr. Westerfeld goes there (and I’m hoping that this is something touched on in Extras, which I have yet to read!). I also appreciated another long look at the tumultuous friendship between Tally and Shay in this book – there’s an especially thrilling pivotal scene in the city armory that really pushes both characters that I loved.
My only qualms with Specials were in the resolutions – Shay and Tally’s falling out is very neatly ended and takes place completely outside of the story, off-screen (and explained away in a manner that doesn’t really satisfy). The other failing for me was in the resolution of the whole Zane or David triangle – again, a twist of plot takes that decision away from Tally. And why is it that books like this in general always have the girl ending up with one fo the guys in the triangle? After everything Tally has been through, is it not inconceivable that she would end up on her own? Merely being herself without needing to give in to one guy or the other?
That aside, I found this a great conclusion to a very strong series. Well, temporary conclusion, I guess, as I have Extras still to read!
Rating: 8 Excellent
Verdict: I really enjoyed the Uglies trilogy – even though I had my issues with heroine Tally, I cannot help but be impressed with her journey as a character from the beginning of the series to the end. One thing Mr. Westerfeld does well is write ACTION, so if you’re in the mood for a fast-paced futuristic thriller with high-stakes, this is the series for you. Hoverboards haven’t been this cool since Back to the Future II. And, as the series progresses, it gains a surprising depth – especially by the time Specials rolls around. Definitely recommended.
Author Scott Westerfeld has a new series on the horizon, beginning with the young adult steampunk novel titled Leviathan.
Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.
You can read the first chapter of Leviathan online HERE. The novel hits stores in the US and UK on October 6!
What’s even cooler about Leviathan is that:
1. The audiobook is narrated by the one and only Alan Cumming; and
2. The novel is FULLY ILLUSTRATED by Keith Thompson. Check out the examples below (click on the thumbnails for the full picture):
Is anyone else excited? I cannot wait! In the meantime, I suppose I’ll have to content myself by going through Scott Westerfeld’s backlist. Any suggestions?