It’s hard to talk about Specials by Scott Westerfeld without talking about the other books in his young adult series. My compliments and criticisms both tend to be consistent starting with Uglies, continuing with Pretties, and then being further exasperated in Specials.
The premise of the series is interesting—a dystopian society where at age 16 everyone is made “pretty” and moved to a special area of town where only beautiful people reside. Huge spoiler alert if you haven’t read the first book—the protagonist, Tally, is convinced to escape and discovers that in the process of being made beautiful, the government also does something to your brain, basically making everyone stupid and compliant. In Specials, Tally has been recaptured by the city and made into a super-human being, part of an arm of law-enforcement known as the Cutters. Tally must use her powers to save her friends and stop a war.
Like the first two books in the series, Specials can be quite heavy-handed at times. But given that its messages tend to be quite agreeable (caring for the environment, thinking for oneself) this can be overlooked. The futuristic elements also tend to be a bit cheesy at times—kind of like a kid’s idea of a perfect world (toothbrush pills, really?)—and sometimes mentioned unnecessarily. However, while the details don’t always work, the overall world is colorful and creative.
The book reads fairly quickly with short chapters and a lot of action. At times, though, the action scenes fail to be engaging—probably because of the lack of true danger to the characters—many of whom are “special” like Tally—and though not invincible, certainly can handle a lot more than a regular human. Another reason the action isn’t as heart-stopping as it should be is because it can be hard to care for Tally and the others. Obviously it is part of the novel’s premise that young Tally and her friends be obsessed with physical appearances, but it isn’t exactly an endearing quality. And while ultimately one of the main tensions of the novel is Tally’s internal battle with what has been done to her mind, there are also physical battles in which Tally is on the “wrong” side. It’s hard to hope that Tally and her friends don’t get shot by the people trying to stop the evil government.
At the end of Specials, I felt truly satisfied that Tally’s character arc was complete and that the tensions of the novel and its two predecessors were resolved. I thought it was a truly fantastic ending. Then I remembered that there’s a fourth book—The Extras. My original thought was that while the story could continue, it would be overkill, but I’ll keep you posted once I read the fourth.
If you are still looking for a gift for your teenage reader (and you’ve already bought them The Hunger Games) you may consider this series. Denver area residents can pick up a copy of Specials or the box set of four (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras) at the Littleton or Parker Borders store or at your closest Tattered Cover.