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 clich├ęs; 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.  

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