Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld is the first in a four-volume series (also Pretties, Specials and Extras) of YA teenage dystopian novels.  Set in the future - our future, after a bacterium destroys all Earth's oil and decimates our economies and society in general - the current society has changed quite a lot.  Things are recycled, animals are no longer eaten, energy is self-sustaining and no longer petroleum-based, there are hoverboards and hovercars, and body image issues govern pretty much everything: at age sixteen, everyone undergoes a full-body plastic surgery procedure that homogenizes their appearance and makes them "pretty."  Before the surgery, you're an Ugly.  You live in a dorm with other Uglies, you're called by ugly names and you count down the days until you can be made pretty.

Pretties have all the fun.  After the surgery, it's nothing but parties and nice clothes and drinking fancy drinks. No worries, no cares in the world.  There are additional surgeries as people age, moving them to "middle Pretties," the conscientious grown-up stage, for example, and you can get elective surgeries to change your appearance even more, but the initial prettifying is not optional.  Tally Youngblood, Uglies heroine, can't wait to be made pretty.  Her BFF Peris is a month older than she, and so got his surgery before she did and subsequently abandoned her to his new life.  Tally is lonely and unhappy, hating the way she looks.  One night, after spying on the pretties, Tally meets another Ugly, Shay.  Shay is smart, irreverent and fun - and happy with her own face.  She doesn't want the surgery - something Tally can scarcely comprehend - and tells her new friend that she doesn't have to have it.  They can run away, into the forest surrounding the civilized city, and meet up with other people who have chosen to remain ugly.  Just days before her birthday surgery, Shay disappears into the wild, leaving Tally an encoded message on how to find her.  Tally doesn't know what to do - all her life she's only ever wanted to be pretty - and then, suddenly, the decision is not hers to make: the authorities pick her up and tell her that if she doesn't track down Shay and lead them to this rebel Ugly community, she will never be allowed the surgery and will remain ugly forever.  Tally heads into the woods where the world opens up to her in ways she never could have imagined.

I read a lot of books and I know what great YA fantasy fiction is.  Uglies is not great.  The premise is fascinating (because you do realize that "uglies" really just look like you and me but they've been conditioned to hate that) but the execution is just not there.  The characters are superficially developed and the writing just isn't that eloquent, like it's been dumbed down.  You don't have to dumb down YA fiction: The Hunger Games series, Coraline and The Graveyard Book, the Flora Segunda books, the Chaos Walking series, etc., etc., are all wonderful YA books with sophisticated writing.  But maybe it just takes Westerfeld a little while to hit his stride - maybe the next books are better, which is why I don't know what to do about this series.  I didn't love Uglies but I'm intrigued to see what happens to Tally next.

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