**This Review Contains Some Spoilers**
I was drawn to this title, and in fact the whole series, by several reviews I had read online, but also because I have been on a bit of a Post-Apocalyptic bent of late. I am always on the lookout for good Young Adult titles that I can share with my 15 year old niece. I was intrigues by the tag line;
"A world where everyone's ugly. And then they're not."
So instead of buying the individual titles, this four volume set was actually less expensive, and more suitable for sharing with my young friends, I decided to get all four novels in one snap. I started off with no preconceived notions of the novel, and dove in eagerly.
The first thing I noted was that there is a lot of 'slang' in this novel, terminology that is unique to the time and place it is set in, and rather difficult to tease out the full meanings of at first. We are introduced to almost 16 year-old Tally Youngblood, our main protagonist, who is left behind in 'Uglyville' while all her friends have turned 16, and have moved across the river to 'New Pretty Town', where they have undergone extensive surgical procedures to be what is known as Pretty. These include what those familiar with genetics will recognize as the hallmarks of beauty through evolution of man, starting with facial symmetry, and including the traits that make other humans want to take care of them, including many of the features of newborns, such as large eyes, full lips, rounded cheeks, and a sort of childlike innocence. I did happily note that there is a definite emphasis not just on facial beauty, but also healthy body weight as being the ideal, no one is allowed to be too skinny, as stories of old warned of crazy people who starved themselves until they were sick.
The entire society that Tally lives within is geared towards these Pretties, they are indulged in a life of idleness, allowed to party endlessly and drink to excess, participate in 'safe' monitored risk taking, and allowed to customize their wardrobes and even facial and body traits over and over again like living dolls. This is prized as the ultimate ideal outcome for any 'Littlie', or child, and all the schooling they receive is geared towards seeing past human societies as wasteful, dangerous, and violent. It seems being Pretty is the solution to all the problems of mankind's past.
Tally is anxious to become Pretty, but is lonely and isolated without her former friends. This is where she meets 'Shay' another almost 16 year-old, who in fact shares her same birthday, and is similarly the last of her group awaiting the surgery. A friendship quickly evolves, and the girls spend their final weeks playing what are known as 'Tricks', basically finding ways to break the rules, play practical jokes, and leave the secure confines of Uglyville in search of adventures. As their birthdays near, Shay suddenly drops a bomb in Tally, telling her she is not going to become Pretty, she will instead run away and look for a group of people living outside this well crafted futuristic society. Shay doesn't think being Pretty is what it is cracked up to be, and so she disappears, leaving scant directions to her new home with the bewildered and shocked Tally.
Tally is ready for her surgery, making it all the way to the hospital waiting room, when suddenly the tables are turned. A group of sharp featured and slick Pretties, known as 'Special Circumstances' or 'Specials', tell her she must lead them to her friend 'Shay' who is in danger. If Tally refuses, she will be an Ugly forever. Tally is left having to decide between a life of social isolation, or going after her friend and trying to save them both.
I think the concept of the book is brilliant, and actually have to give Westerfeld proper credit, he has gone to the extreme with what we are seeing happening all too often, the pursuit of physical beauty over intellectual acumen or even kindness. Westerfeld has placed the reader in a future world that has managed to control the expectations of an entire society by using a single turning point, a surgery, to mark their acceptance into a larger community. I think that there are ample hints in the book that also point to the destruction of the environment, war, and bioengineering as certain evils that have brought about an almost total decimation of the human population, and the need to control those who are left by instituting new technology, new rules, and a system of protections.
On the other hand, the book is difficult to get into at first, as all the new made-up slang and technological terminology of this future world make reading it rather like climbing a steep cliff in the dark. There is no lexicon, no list of terminology, that could help us navigate, and often terms have more than one meaning, adding yet another layer to the confusion. There is also a fair bit of cultural frame of reference when looking at the basic language as well, Scott Westerfeld originates from the US, but also spends a lot of time in Australia, and there is a set of slang terminology that might be difficult to access for teens in the Canada in particular. I had never really heard the term 'SpagBol' before, but later discovered it is a common abbreviated term for Spaghetti Bolognese, used often in the UK as well.
While I myself found a number of good topics for discussion in the novel, my niece informed me that she just couldn't get into this book. Though I find Tally to be a strong lead character, who develops nicely over the arc of the book, she is at first is rather difficult to warm to. I did enjoy the story, and looking back I can say that I am glad I persevered, but the payoff comes towards the end of the novel, The pace of the book varies greatly from beginning to end, and almost seems to stop short by the final pages, which of course makes it perfect for a 4 book series, although somewhat frustrating on it's own.
There is no sexually explicit content or language, and no cussing in this novel, so I would say it is suitable for younger teens, but you need to know your reader. As I have said, the unique slang in the novel makes it somewhat difficult to immerse oneself in satisfactorily.
Bottom Line: While this book is a satisfying start to the series, it is not a book that stands alone entirely well. I would not generally recommend this book for very young adults, it might lead to more frustration at first and they might not wish to continue with it, which would be a shame. As it is a full priced stand-alone novel, it is a rather expensive gamble in my humble opinion.