Review of Specials by Scott Westerfeld
by Scott Westerfeld
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I am ambivalent about how Specials concludes the original Uglies trilogy (yes, I know there's a fourth book, and I shall even read it one day). On one hand, it was much better than Pretties. On the other hand, it is still not as good as Uglies.
Specials just didn't grip me. It fell flat, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way. I persevered, poked and prodded at it, begged it to impress me, but it adamantly refused. Although it eventually coughed up a story that might be better even than Uglies', I remain wary about its themes. As a result, while I hesitate to pan it outright, this is a book I can't really celebrate for its pristine quality.
I can see the appeal of Tally's double transformation, from ugly to pretty and then to Special. Westerfeld incorporates many aspects of adolescence—obsession with body appearance, the use of "cutting" to make oneself "feel something," a sense of a sharp divide between those who are "pathetic" or "random" and those who are special—and creates a potent metaphor for the prison that adolescence can be. Yet Specials suffers from the same problem as its predecessors: rather than revealing its themes through story, the story tends to obscure them, leaving me more annoyed than awed.
Consider Dr. Cable, whose transformation has been almost as drastic as Tally's. In Specials, she is revealed as a Knight Templar who uses Tally's mistake as an excuse to go to take control of the city, institute martial law, and go to war with another city. Granted, the motives Westerfeld ascribes to her are coherent with the rest of the plot and compatible with her character. I just can't help being disappointed that the villain wasn't . . . more formidable. Tally defeats Dr. Cable by curing her—presumably, Cable inherited her attitude from brain lesions put there by her predecessors. For someone who is always one step ahead of Tally when needed, Cable always has a convenient blind spot when Tally has to escape.
The other protagonists are equally unimpressive. None of the relationships among the characters seem real. And I'm not talking about the special slang or the irksome appendage of "-la" or "-wa" to people's names. Shay and Tally continue their frenemy dance. Zane gets killed off in a moment that is genuinely tragic, and Tally picks herself up and moves on with stunning alacrity. And then, at the end of the book, she decides to run off with David! To be fair, the book doesn't tell us if they ever move beyond friendship . . . but let's not kid ourselves. I was on Team David from the start; however, I'm dissatisfied with how these parts of the story felt like they were compressed for time (or in this case, length).
There are some good parts of the book, of course. We get to meet Andrew Simpson Smith again—he managed to escape the reservation using fire. Actually, I had kind of assumed the barrier was immune to fire, since it seems like a rather obvious thing to try. Apparently I was wrong. In any event, Andrew's on the outside now and has met up with the New Smokies. They've got access to helicopters, and they have rescued more of Andrew's comrades from the reservation. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, since the reservationists know more about living in the wild than the New Smokies do.
Just as he does in Pretties, Westerfeld sidelines what I consider a very interesting plot element. I'm far more interested in the consequences of freeing the reservationists than I am in whether Tally ends up with Zane or David. Maybe this is because I'm not the target audience here. Nevertheless, unlike his somewhat interesting role in Pretties, Andrew Simpson Smith is little more than a living sign post in Specials. Yet again, this book acts like an impatient tour guide attempting to rush the reader from exhibit to exhibit.
Fortunately, unlike Pretties, this is not simply a re-telling of Uglies wrapped in shiny new scenery. There is an original story here, and it isn't a bad one. Instead, the problem lies with the way it's told. In its haste to tell its story, Specials fails to create the kind of atmosphere necessary to succeed with its storytelling. There is so much to love about Westerfeld's Uglies universe; this is a rare case of the story getting in the way of the world rather than the other way around.
I said at the beginning of this review that I was undecided about Specials' contribution to the Uglies series. I still am. As a book in its own right, however, I'm convinced that Specials is not special. It is a little random.