Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Specials, by Scott Westerfeld

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scott Westerfeld opens Specials just a couple of month after the conclusion to Pretties. When Pretties ended, Tally Youngblood was forced to become one of the Specials, a heavily modified version of a Pretty, except with a purpose. Pretties are essentially exaggerated versions of today’s vapid celebrities, with the world at their feet, no responsibility except to have fun, and unable to think critically about anything beyond their next party. Specials take the surgical modifications that turned Uglies into Pretties to another level. The brain lesions which have restricted the Pretties’ ability to think have been removed. Specials are warriors, the elite guard of Pretty society. They intervene when something is deemed a “special circumstance”, like Tally’s attempt to bring down Pretty society with the help of the Smokey’s (a group of Uglies who have rejected the concept of Pretty). When captured by her former friend Shay at the end of Pretties, Tally was modified against her will to become Special, and because of the surgery, her former life was gone as were her former desires. Now she was Special, part of an elite group with Shay, and on a mission to eliminate the threat posted to New Prettytown by the Smokey’s.

At this point I realized that Scott Westerfeld is working with a bit of a formula. Tally begins Uglies / Pretties / Specials as a member of whatever group is the title of the book. She is fully a member of that group with no real desire to be anything more than that group. By the end of the novel Tally ends up in the group she opposed throughout most of the book. The next book opens with Tally in that group. In Uglies she initially wanted to be Pretty but learned over the course of the novel about the brain damage. By the end she agreed to become Pretty in order to subvert the system from within. But, when Pretties opened Tally was fully Pretty without a thought in her head. The opening chapters explored Tally’s Prettiness. The same with the opening to Specials. When this first happened at the end of Uglies the change was shocking. Even at the end of Pretties it was a huge surprise to see Tally taken by Shay and turned Special against her will. But when we look at the series as a whole, a pattern emerges and now it seems inevitable that all this would happen. It is part of the formula used by Westerfeld.

On one hand this has allowed Westerfeld to explore various aspects of this society he has created in a natural way and keep a consistent but evolving storyline. On the other hand, once the formula becomes obvious the story begins to suffer because the element of discovery has been lost. Certain events have to happen because of how Westerfeld has structured the novels.

With this complaint about formula and expectation one shouldn’t lose track of the fact that the Uglies series is infectious reading. Once you start and get hooked, you’re in and can’t stop until the book is done. Westerfeld has done a masterful job in actually telling the story. Specials may not be quite as good as Uglies (perhaps because of the missing sense of discovery), but it’s still a high quality piece of YA fiction. Let me amend that. Specials is a high quality piece of fiction that just happens to be targeted at a younger demographic but can still be enjoyed and appreciated by all ages. I may have made this next point about other YA works, but the best YA is that which appeals to a variety of age groups and not just the age group the publisher has decided is the target audience. When the appeal is broad we know that work is a cut above. Scott Westerfeld is several cuts above.

Specials is not the strongest entry in the Uglies series (at this point it was a trilogy, but there is now a fourth volume, Extras), but it is good. Filled with action and everything we’ve come to expect from this series. Specials,along with the rest of the series, is well worth reading. There is a small sense of let-down from Pretties and Uglies, but give the series a shot.


C. B. James said...

Good review. I've not made it past the first book but the series is very popular with my students. Your review will help me keep up.

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