Spoiler warning: Specials is the last book in a trilogy by young adult author Scott Westerfeld, and although this review doesn't spoil the ending, it nonetheless divulges a lot of plot points of the earlier two books.
I finished Scott Westerfeld’s Specials in a single day, which should tell you something about its utter un-put-down-able-ness. That it stands as the last chapter to his Uglies trilogy plays a certain part – having read Uglies and Pretties, I was racing to see how the story ended. And Westerfeld writes with an amazing comprehension of his readers, so the book raced alongside me. On hoverboards, no less.
The world of Uglies, Pretties, and Specials is one several hundred years in the future, in a civilization traumatized by the careless mistakes of “Rusties” – that’s us. With the world almost destroyed by unfettered growth and environmental devastation, this brave new world has gotten a lot less free. At sixteen, teenagers can look forward to the surgery that makes them astoundingly pretty, and pretty clueless. In Uglies and then Pretties, we followed Tally Youngblood and her friends as they first rejected and then accepted the surgery – living in the wild, living in the party towers of New Pretty Town, and living with the brain-dead effects of the invasive pretty surgery.
So when we find Tally again in Specials, she’s something completely different than the Ugly Tally or the Pretty Tally. Crossing the last threshold of manipulation, the feisty Tally is special - a specially manipulated government agent designed to curb revolt.
Are you still with me? You should be. Aside from all the wicked cool tricks and gadgets that Westerfeld creates (skateboard-like hoverboards, skintennas, a floating ice rink), the entire trilogy is infused with humanity. The delicious rebellion against authority in Uglies becomes the struggle to escape mindless oppression in Pretties. The cult of beauty, apathetic distractions as a solution for unhappiness, even war and domination – doesn’t this sound familiar? They’re all in there. Westerfeld’s trilogy has everything an epic journey should have.
Specials, however, was agonizing to read, and I mean that in a good way. To Westerfeld’s credit, through all the hoverboard chases and high-tech lingo, he connects his readers deeply with Tally, Shay, David, and Zane – our erstwhile heroes or villains, depending on which book you’re reading. It was difficult enough to hear Tally’s pretty babble as a Pretty – it’s heartwrenching to see her as a vicious, almost heartless Special. It’s almost heartwrenching, after everything that happened in the prior two books, to see her chasing David as an enemy and listening rapt to Shay’s insane babble. I read the first half of Specials in a perpetual cringe. It’s well-crafted but it’s painful. As Tally begins to shake her Special-influenced thoughts and we see the old, rebellious, free-thinking Tally, it’s like waking up from an annoying dream.
The language, throughout the trilogy, has been one of Westerfeld’s secret weapons. Reading it as an adult, it was clear to see how well-thought-out his words were in respect to his savvy teenaged audience. Teens know fakery a mile away but Westerfeld’s slang is real and sharp. The “bubbliness” of Pretties has been upgraded for Tally and her Specials – they’re looking for iciness now, and cutting themselves to get it. Like regional dialects, everyone in Westerfeld’s world falls into their own camp of language and slang. Even the absence of slang – David’s clear and region-less style – has its own implications. It’s one of the greater tricks up Westerfeld’s sleeve. The language serves as an instantaneous shorthand. I even laughed to see the silly society pretties using the –making affix (happy-making, sad-making) that Evelyn Waugh uses to great effect in Vile Bodies. Slang is slang, in 1930’s England or in mid-third-millennium America.
The tech specs, too, work almost uniformly, blending seamlessly into the story. Except, perhaps, the prevalence of chase scenes. Let me preface this with saying that I’m not accustomed to any author writing a high-speed chase scene grippingly enough to keep my eyes on the page. Westerfeld does it exceedingly well, especially the first one in the book, where Tally and her Special friends are chasing the New Smoke rebels through a quiet forest. But Specials raced towards its conclusion enough for me – I was already breathless trying to keep up. Some of the mad dashes towards the end were too fast for me.
I don’t read books in a day very often. I don’t read and walk very often (well, okay, I do). And I don’t read Young Adult trilogies very often. Westerfeld has made me do all three, and look forward to more. Tally Youngblood and the world she inhabits aren’t just well-written for teenagers, although Westerfeld’s slang and shorthands are masterfully done to that end, as is the teen-centric plotline he’s created. The books are good, period. They’re gripping, they’re painful, and they demand a lot from the reader. That’s the mark of a good story.