Saturday, October 30, 2010

Review: Specials

It's the classic mind-versus-heart tale with a rather high-tech twist.

After being captured again at the end of Pretties, Tally Youngblood has undergone another operation—this time she’s molded as a frighteningly beautiful cyborg-like creature called a Special. Her senses are razor-sharp, her muscles stocked with self-repairing microfilaments, her skeleton now as light and indestructible as aircraft ceramics, and most importantly, her brain functions to think she’s better than everyone else. She’s enlisted as a member of the Special Circumstance, the secret police force of the city programmed to keep the Uglies from doing out-of-hand capers and make the Pretties remain as the bubbleheads that they are. Her body is now set to preserve the world from destruction. But her humanity lives within her: there’s always a faint heartbeat from the past that keeps on pulsating its way to her present, driving her Special senses haywire. With the rebellion quickly spreading, Tally must choose what to follow: her brain engineered by the authorities, or her past memories that make her feel like a walking dichotomy. Whatever her decision will be, it will affect the new future that is just starting to rise…

Specials is a special book to me (lame pun not intended) because even if there are so many parts that I’m a tad unsatisfied with, it still made me love the entire Uglies series. I’m expecting it to be a mixed bag based on the reviews I’ve heard, and I proved it to myself when I ripped it open. I’ve given it a fair amount of thumbs up and head shakes.

So to start with the good points: the pacing is quick as always, the pages jam-packed with action and suspense. There’s less fluff here compared to the first two books, mainly because Tally’s got a dangerous job now and there’s a rebellion looming in the horizon. I love how the main characters are so flawed. In the first two books, Specials are thought as perfectly beautiful fighting machines, but Tally as one of them is still full of the same foibles that she has even as an ugly. It’s worse actually, considering that she was torn between what her system wants and what her heart whispers.

Westerfeld is a master at world-building—in a book that’s intended for young readers, at least. He makes the reader feel at home in the modern world he weaved. One subtle way he used to do this is the ‘pretty-speak’. The shallow conversations and vocabulary can be so annoying sometimes but it still separates the readers’ world from the Uglies universe; over time the reader can get used to it. The author also knows how it must feel like for a Rusty—obviously the reader—to read about the possible cause of his extinction and the existence of a society like the Pretty’s, because he handles the narration well. Thumb up for that.

This book also reminded me why I liked science fiction. I’m completely fascinated by the technology—from the simplest like toothbrush pills and bungee jackets, to more complicated like the Specials’ hoverboards and giant monster machines. My personal favorites are 1) the sneak suits, which I tagged as Westerfeld’s techno version of the Harry Potter series’ Invisibility Cloak and 2) the skintenna, obviously a portmanteau of “skin” and “antenna”, a communication network programmed in the brain and skin that lets you connect with newsfeeds and other networks.  They’re so cool! I have other sci-fi fandoms, and I think I’d be borrowing some of technologies introduced in this series.

There are portions where I wish I didn’t get attached to some of the characters that much—and this is still a good point for Westerfeld because that is obviously what he intended to happen. I admit that Zane’s death tore me. I’ve loved this character since Pretties, never fading even in Specials, when he’s half-brain dead and crippled and all that. The doctor’s revelation about his request for his old reflexes to be restored and amplified just so Tally wouldn’t be disgusted with his infirmity anymore was utterly heartbreaking. Westerfeld skipped the dramatic clichés; no words of good bye from Zane, who’s strapped on life-support machines. Tally even stayed just for a couple of seconds, her mind set to end the war even if her heart is heavy with remorse and despair. Wait, did I just say I liked a Gary Stu?

The latter part’s Tally reminded me so much of Mockingjay’s Katniss: laden with guilt, shame, and despair. Both heroines blame themselves for the war and deaths, except that Tally adjusted so quickly in the end, pulling off a Pollyannaish attitude as a savior of the world.

That’s where we go to the bad points: how do the characters change so quickly? I assessed the three books after reading Specials and I realized that most of the character developments are done rather bluntly through the operations and the cures. Westerfeld just polishes off the edges when a character is turned, and I have to admit that’s a pretty clever way to do it. Surgeries are a major plot device of the whole series so I can’t say I feel cheated. It’s just…clever.  I just wish he just gave more room for the characters to develop into three-dimensional fullness, it would have been better. However, seeing how fast the pace of Specials is, it’s almost impossible. It just proves that a fast pacing is not necessarily a good thing, if you don’t let the characters be tagged along with the current.

There are plot holes too. Seriously, Dr. Cable’s regime is not that easy to annihilate, right? I need a lot of detais for that, how it fell and what Dr. Cable did in attempts to prevent it. The ending note was kind of weak for me, and it did not answer the questions I have in mind. I wish that these will be answered in the next book, Extras, even if Tally is no longer the main character.

All in all, it’s still a wonderful read.

I think I may buy Leviathan series by the same author. I heard it's steampunk, and I love how Westerfeld works with machines and stuff.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments Book 2)

I've secured this second installment of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series--City of Ashes--ages ago. There are two reasons why I finished reading this just last Friday: one, because academics and the school paper kept me busy for the most part of the semester. Two, because it was really not engaging enough to keep me turning pages.

Not that I didn't like City of Ashes. I enjoyed a lot of parts, especially the action-packed battle between the main characters and the demons near the end of the book. Somehow, though, a large chunk of this story didn't satisfy me. I liked City of Bones more.

City of Ashes starts right after the events in City of Bones. Clary Fray's wish to live a normal life is impossible after she discovers she is a Shadowhunter. However, it's not only her life that is changed forever--Jace Wayland discovers that he is the son of Valentine, and is actually Clary's brother. With their budding love now forbidden, both of them must try to clamp down their feelings and zero in on the problem at hand: Valentine is on the loose and is summoning a large army of demons using another Mortal instrument, the Soul Sword.

The story's plot is okay, a lot of the dialogues still brilliant (thank you Jace Wayland for your ever-so-witty one-liners), and a lot of characters from the first book has been "inflated" more. I'm liking Magnus and Alec now--especially that I'm finally seeing their chemistry--but they've just created more complications in an already complex love polygon. There's so many sides forming, and I have to admit that it's sometimes cloying to find these tumbling over the storyline where they're not actually needed. They don't actually ruin a scene or anything, but there's so (of the main characters, of minor characters, of parents of the major characters, of minor antagonists, etc). Like it's become a story with 65% romance and 35% fantasy/action...but hey, maybe it's just me. *and here's the part where I smack and remind myself that it's a YA novel. Romance sells, end of story.*

I like how Clare put some references to pop culture. Anime (including Naruto, dudes!), the Harry Potter books, you name it. It's one good way to pull young readers in.

Moving on, I think it's really not Clare's style to produce a very powerful page-turner. Maybe it's not in her mind after all--maybe she's all for the world-building and character development, which are obviously her forte. There are just certain authors who do not aim to weave a story that makes the reader sit with it in just one night--Neil Gaiman admitted he's one of those writers.

Perhaps this is not the best book in the Mortal Instruments, but I've become fond of some of the characters that I'm determined to read the entire series. I've heard a lot of good things about City of Glass. Let's see if it's not really overhyped.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Pretties

A trilogy or a book series where the sequels turn out better than the first installment is a rather rare treat for readers; almost always, the first book is the best. After reading the second book of the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, I believe that this trilogy-plus-one is going to be classified in that category. :)

Pretties picks up where Uglies left off--Tally Youngblood has finally become a new Pretty and has joined her other friends in the city to live a not-so-bubbly life. The most important thing a Pretty can do is to party, and you are required to do nothing (until you become a middle Pretty, when you finally have to find a job) but to be lazy, vain, and vapid. Tally seems to be content with her Pretty life until a message from the past brings back Ugly memories. With vague flashbacks surging in her head, she remembers why she has agreed to be surgically altered, and now she and some members of her Pretty clique--the Crims--embark on a journey to escape from the controlling city....and to be cured.

Apparently I enjoyed Pretties more than Uglies for several reasons.

The themes that are explored in book 1 are continuously revisited, sometimes providing additional information that gives more light to the topics, answering questions I haven't even formed when I was reading Uglies.
Also, this time, I felt the characters more. Tally as a Pretty is something more palpable than her Ugly self, where it's supposed to be the other way around (maybe it's only just me, though). It must be noted, however, that Tally still has this 'Ugly' heart and mind, and she hasn't really changed completely. So what's done here's her character is given more weight for being a Pretty on the surface and still a real Ugly on the inside. There are times where she treads lightly on the Mary Sue grounds, but maybe only it's because she and a majority of characters in the book are beautiful--I've been a bit wary of very pretty characters since the first time I wrote fanfiction. Mary Sue is a big no-no. Still, I liked Tally-wa. :p

Zane is a good character as well. It's a shame that I liked him more than David.

What I liked the most about this book? The twists. The latter part, where Tally finally arrives to the New Smoke, contains a chock-full of those. The twist about the cure, the location of the transmitter, Shay's and the Cutters' fates, you name them. I loved being surprised.

A good read all in all--I'm glad I decided to continue with this series. It's still a YA book, but a good one at that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Uglies

After suffering from a "withdrawal syndrome" of some sort after finishing Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, I asked for recommendations around Tumblr--specifically for books or series that have the same feel or fall in the same genre as The Hunger Games. Almost 90% of the Tumblr bookworms I asked told me to secure copies of the Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. And I did, after checking out various spolier-free reviews in the internet.

The series starts with the book Uglies. In a post-scarcity dystopian society that is obsessed with physical appearance, people undergo cosmetic surgery at the age of sixteen so that they can be turned “Pretty”. Teenager Tally Youngblood has spent most of her Ugly life waiting and wanting to be Pretty. But a few months before her sixteenth birthday she meets up with fellow Ugly Shay, who does not want to be turned at all. Shay shows Tally some of the ugly truths about being Pretty, about conforming to the rules set by the society. When Shay runs away to live with the Smokies—people who rebelled and kept their Ugly faces—Tally has to make a choice: go bring back her friend, or don’t turn Pretty at all.

The verdict? For me, this book is a mixed bag.

Let’s start with the good points. I commend this book for deftly discussing deep, thought-provoking themes that most young adult books don’t have nowadays. While the story revolves around topics like the price of beauty and the physical and emotional changes that a teenager experiences, several other significant subjects are touched, ones that made this book a not-so-subtle social commentary. Environmental issues are raised when characters think of the past, often including how these modern people think of the foolishness of the Rusties (what they call people from the past, which is us, people who live today). It is blatant that the book is anti-war too, especially when you read the last parts of the book. The most important theme however, is maintaining your individuality in a world where you are expected to follow every rule set for you, where Big Brother watches you wherever you go. As what the cliché goes: the hardest battle is to be yourself in a world that wants you to be somebody else.

Now on with the not-so-pretty points. I have to say that I didn’t feel the characters that much. While they are nowhere far from being three-dimensional, there is something that doesn’t cling with me as I read. I did not like any character that much, but I did not hate anyone—that’s not necessarily a good thing though. I’m hoping that the next installments will make up for this. Also, while there is action, it was not kept constant through the whole book. Some parts are pretty predictable as well. It is easy to find out that this book is really written for young adults. The pacing is quite good, but it’s not so much of a page-turner for me.

There are scenes that remind me so much of The Hunger Games and I admit that there's a moment that wondered if Collins read the series long ago. The city of Pretties itself is like the Capitol in THG—remember how almost everyone there are surgically altered? Authorities are strict and controlling too. Also, the parts where Tally is travelling to the Rusty Ruins remind me of Katniss Everdeen’s time in the arena where she’s still roughing it out alone. There’s even this one scene where Tally wakes up and finds her world “on fire”, and she spends the next chapter (Firestorm) dodging the flames. In a scene in THG, Katniss wakes up to find a “wall of fire” descending on her, and she spends the next chapter dodging fireballs.  There are still a lot of similar tidbits, but I won’t go into that anymore. Pretties, the second book, have more important similarities with THG and I’ll discuss that when I make a review for that.

All in all, this is still a good read, though there are parts that can be shallow at times (or maybe it’s really supposed to be that way, because of some of the shallow characters?). I enjoyed it for the most part.