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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Specials by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Specials, book three in the Uglies Quartet
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Reviewed Format: UK paperback
Pages: 384 
Release Date: November 6, 2006

If you’ve read this far into the series, then I think you can figure out what’s happened to Tally Youngblood.  For those of you that haven’t, but are still reading this, I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum in the first couple of paragraphs.  At the end of Pretties, Tally’s former friend Shay had a new trick up her sleeve: she’d turned into a Special, one of Dr. Cables surgically-altered attack dogs trained specifically for optimal performance outside city walls.  Specials monitor activity outside of New Pretty Town, making sure no one dares to challenge the authority of the government.  If they do, there’s a unique future ahead of them.  It involves razor sharp teeth, nails, and senses fine-tuned for ultra-clarity.  Specials are made to be tough and indestructible.  Their bones are replaced with high-grade materials designed for light weight and fast movement; their tendons and muscles are similar.  With bodies full of swarming nanos ready to repair any damage, Specials are as much construct as they are human.  These cyborgs are kept as a threat to their fellow citizens who fear their power as much as they fear wolfish eyes and cruelly-angled faces.  Specials were designed to be feared.

With the exaggerated features and artificial enhancements, Specials have an elevated sense of themselves.  Their egos are blown out of proportion and they’re quick to anger.  Shay’s group of Specials are culled from the Pretty clique known as the Cutters.  Despite their physical advantages, they feel the need to cut themselves, achieving the same bubbly clarity from pain that Pretties got from a rush of adrenaline.  Specials, though, need to be extra bubbly: they need to be icy.  With their overconfidence and new slang, the Cutters go around finding Uglies and Pretties trying to make their way out to the New Smoke.  Among these runaways are the ringleaders--David, Tally’s former boyfriend, Maddy, his mother and mass producer of the Pretty cure, the other old Smokies, and a new recruit, Andrew Simpson Smith, one time experiment and full-time freedom fighter.

But Tally finds herself in a precarious situation.  Zane was recaptured and is still a bubblehead (the Cutter term for Pretties).  As a new Special, Tally struggles with the tell-tale signs of his illness: the shaky hands and wobbly gait he’s been left with after taking the wrong pill scream imperfection to Tally’s heightened senses and need for perfection.  Once again, Tally has to learn how to rewire herself just in time to save the day from her own screw-ups.  Only this time, she finally comes to terms with the selfish behavior and excuses she’s been tossing around for the past couple of books.  Owning up to her mistakes isn’t easy, but I think it made the end of the book more worthwhile.

It was pretty difficult reading Specials.  Tally makes a lot of bad choices and is so unlike what we’ve seen so far of her that it was a surprise when she didn’t just snap out of it in the first few chapters, like in Pretties.  Shay wasn’t that much different although, with her temper and mercurial disposition, she was always a loose canon.  As a Special, her friendship with Tally has turned into one big ugly abusive sneer-fest.  She’s quite mean and bullies Tally regularly, not that Tally is any better.  But reading from the perspective of one bitter, hypocritical, and vengeful Special interacting with another (especially ones who engage in the queasy act of self-mutilation) wasn’t easy.  They’re insulting and derogatory of “randoms”--non-Specials; on top of a massive sense of entitlement, Tally, Shay, and the other Specials don’t come off as very attractive characters.

There are concessions to this.  When Tally finds herself in Diego, she’s confronted by a middle pretty who mistakes her Special tattoos and sharp body parts for a fashion trend, a fad, something entirely non-threatening.  This puts Tally off-balance, but was so hilarious I wanted more.  It was about time she got pulled down a notch or two and finding not just one person, but an entire city of people who didn’t care who, or what she was, or much less knew they should be very afraid of her, disarmed Tally to the point of feeling like the very type of aberration she’d begun to loathe: a random.  It was even a relief when she was locked up in a padded cell, unable to use her fancy new enhancements to force her way out of the situation.  I didn’t particularly sympathize with her in this series, but in Specials least of all.  Although she does exhibit some redeeming qualities by the end of the book, I was disappointed she got to keep everything--all of the enhancements and the good looks--on top of befriending David again.  I suppose her punishment was watching what happened to Zane along with whatever mind-altering realizations she came to, and it’s probably cruel of me to think so, but I think I wanted a little more out of her than that.

I am, however, pretty entertained with the last chapter.  Overall, it wrapped up the series nicely; all Tally seems to be missing is a ranger hat and some brown fur to go with her new Smokey the Bear persona.  After all, with everything that’s happened, it’s too easy to get caught up in the personal drama of Tally and her friends without remembering the wider implications of their situation.  New Pretty Town and other cities like it destroyed themselves with wasteful habits and practices.  They relied too much on technology that kept them in a vicious cycle of destruction and dependence--one that nature couldn’t continue to replicate for them forever.  When we discover that it’s really an oil-eating bacteria that ultimately brought about the downfall of 21st Century Rusty culture, I couldn’t help but wondering: why does it always have to be about oil and the environment?  Obviously, authors of dystopian novels seem to pick up on the same niggling fears and reality, but it’s interesting to see the very different futuristic fictions they come up with for what are ultimately, the same factors of destruction.

It wasn’t until Specials that Westerfeld finally gives the reader clues about the rough location of Tally’s city.  With mentions of Death Valley, Diego, and what I can only assume are the Rocky Mountains, Tally’s New Pretty Town must be close enough to California for the Diego mentioned to be, maybe, a future San Diego.  I don’t think the location really matters, but it’s nice to finally be rooted and have some kind of map in my mind to navigate the whereabouts of Tally and her friends.  It gives a little more perspective to the environment and context for culture.

One last thing I really enjoyed was watching Tally and Shay having to resort to the “old ways of the forest” (p. 98) when Special tracking methods weren’t going to work out in the wild.  With all of the technology available to them, and everything that’s supposedly made society better than the old Rusty culture, it was entertaining to watch them sober-up their techie highs and tone it down to do things the old-fashioned way.  It was also touching to know that Andrew Simpson Smith and the other villagers had something important to pass on to the much more advanced and better off Pretties and Uglies.  It begs the question: just how much of an advantage does technology really give us?  Or, does it, like the book and series implies, create an easy way out for habits that don’t ever get fixed, but simply replaced with others?  Human nature doesn’t seem to change--Tally and Shay’s evolutionary status doesn’t remove them from the ultimately war-like tendencies brewing under the surface.  But it’s very uplifting to know that humanity can change, if only they put their minds to it.

Specials is filled with non-stop action.  It’s the perfect way to show off Tally’s new skills, culminating in an inter-city war that literally jars the foundations of everything she’s come to understand.  Westerfeld’s writing is, like always, very accessible to readers, even when there’s a lot of explosions and hoverboard action.  It’s ironic in an intelligent way and now that I’ve finished up the third book, don’t feel as shocked as I was with the overwhelming accusations of Uglies.  I think Westerfeld has a talent for exploring the concerns of SF.  I’m glad he’s writing books that I think anyone can pick up and enjoy.

Thanks to Kathryn at Simon and Schuster UK for the review copy!

*Just a reminder that the new rating system will be in use for my next review, the first of 2010!


Lily Child said...

Thanks for the review Erika! I just couldn't get myself to finish this one. It's nice to know what happens. Perhaps I'll attempt to re-read it at some point.

Erika said...

@Lily You might want to give it another try, just because there are some interesting turn arounds--if not necessarily from Tally in the way I wanted. :)

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