Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Reviews: Pretties [2005] and Specials [2006]

While I was finishing up my Leviathan review I remembered once again that I've actually read the rest of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, but never gotten around to reviewing it. I hate leaving things like that unfinished, but bear in mind that it has been a few months and some of the insightful commentary I had planned probably ended up as a throwaway joke on Twitter instead.

When Pretties begins, Tally Youngblood has made the voluntary transformation from rebellious ugly to carefree pretty, theoretically so she could be a test case for the cure to the brain-altering lesions. However, Tally's prettification means that she doesn't really remember much about her love interest David or the Smoke; she's more concerned about going to all the bubbliest parties with her BFF Shay and their new, pretty friends, including the aloof Zane. However, when a face from the past leads Tally and Zane to the cure (which they divide and each take half of, in a completely ill-advised move), it's all they can do to stay bubbly and try to get themselves and the rest of the Crims out of the city and the sinister grip of Special Circumstances. When they get separated, Tally learns that the world beyond her city is even bigger than she had previously imagined.

There's a lot to say about Pretties, mostly because it's jam-packed with action. Westerfeld explores some hefty themes using Tally, Zane, and Shay, including environmentalism, self-injury, resistance to authority, and of course beauty standards and body modification. A few of the things I thought didn't work as well in Pretties were the dream sequences featuring the princess in the tower and the introduction of the "primitive" humans. Although the discovery of this Special Circumstances control group was illuminating, in that the belief that humans are violent as part of their "true nature" provides an important motivating factor that gives some plausibility to Special Circumstances' heretofore seemingly pointless evil, it seemed like a throwaway obstacle between Tally and the New Smoke. Coming as it does almost three-quarters of the way into the book, I feel like I really would have benefited from the opportunity to sit with the ideas a little bit longer. This feeling strengthened for me when I read Specials, where Andrew and the rest of his people are only marginally involved in the action. For example, they are very useful as a group that provides contrast; the fact that the primitives are much more gender-biased than Tally's society makes the reader realize again that there may be advantages to the way the city is organized and run. Tally's home isn't just a black and white place of oppression, despite the way that its citizens are stripped of their free will by the operation. Anyway, it was obviously a thought-provoking read for me.

Grade: B-

Specials picks up after Tally has been caught yet again by Special Circumstances and been surgically transformed into one of the Cutters, a self-injuring clique created by Shay in Pretties to ameliorate the effects of the operation that was later co-opted and special-ized by Dr. Cable. Led by Shay, the Cutters are a wilder band of specials who work to hunt down members of the New Smoke; however, when they come up against a newly militant David and his crew and one of their own is captured, things start to spin of control. Tally enjoys the fantastic powers that come along with her newly special body, but realizes that something isn't quite right as she arranges to get a sick Zane back out of the city in order to convince Dr. Cable that he should be made special as well. However, her plans are swept up in a much larger intrigue as the interplay between Shay, Zane, the New Smoke, Dr. Cable, and the "cured" city of Diego inevitably leads to one of the most frightening Rusty pastimes: war.

Grade: B

Westerfeld did a great job in Specials of expanding the universe he'd created in the first two books. I'm not sure what I expected going in, but it definitely wasn't the introduction of a new city and an inter-city war. It is similar to Uglies and Pretties in that, once again, Tally ends up outside the city, pursuing someone else's agenda, but this time she finally discovers her own agency. Tally has always seemed like a passive character to whom things are done, which makes her rather unlikeable and "why me?" at times, but that changed somewhat by the end of the series. The idea of Tally as a kind of maverick ranger, reminding the newly cured cities not to devour the wilderness as thoughtlessly as the Rusties did, is appealing.

Random Thoughts:

I don't know, am I the only one whose favorite character ended up being Dr. Cable? She was really mean and, I guess, probably evil, but also pretty funny ("Didn't I tell you to lie still? Or must you always destroy everything?") Maybe it was just that, by the end, I wasn't really that invested in Tally or David or Shay. Yeah, I could have done with a whole lot more Dr. Cable. I'm about five steps away from writing "an embittered and friendless Dr. Cable works to unseat the city's new government using only her brilliant, evil mind" fanfic.

Westerfeld has a talent for building slang vocabulary, such as "pretty-making" or "bubbly," and making it stick. I can still hear Carine Montbertrand's voice drawling in my head without too much work, particularly Shay's voice saying "Tally-wa," and I think this was definitely a case where I wouldn't have finished the series if it hadn't been available on audio, or if the narrator had been switched in midstream (which is why I haven't gone any farther than Airborn in Oppel's series, for example). So, kudos to Montbertrand for doing such a great job and making Westerfeld's world come alive for the listener. 

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