Review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Tally Youngblood is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait for the operation that turns everyone from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty and catapults you into a high-tech paradise where your only job is to party. But new friend Shay would rather hoverboard to “the Smoke” and be free. 

Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world and it isn’t very pretty. The “Special Circumstances” authority Dr Cable offers Tally the worst choice she can imagine: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. 

The choice Tally makes changes her world forever.

I downloaded Uglies on my Kindle when it was on offer in the Amazon equivalent of the January sales, because I’d heard it mentioned as the first installment in an interesting YA dystopian series. This is the kind of thing I’ve really enjoyed in the past – I’m thinking The Hunger Games, Mortal Engines, Gathering Blue, Noughts and Crosses among others – so I was keen to give it a try.

I read Uglies incredibly quickly, even given my normally fast reading speed; I did feel that it was a particularly easy and unchallenging read in terms of language, which is fine but also indicated to me that perhaps it was lacking some of the depth of the books I’ve mentioned above.  When a book is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future, you normally except some invented vocabulary mixed in with the world-building of the novel, but there was very little to trouble the reader here in the way of new or different words or concepts.  This might make it suitable for more reluctant readers, but wasn’t necessarily a plus point for me.

I liked the concept behind the book – on reaching 16, young people have an operation which transforms them from ‘uglies’ to ‘pretties’, with different age groups segregated in a sort of attractiveness-based caste system.  I thought, at first, the correlation between becoming ‘pretty’ and becoming an airhead was a bit trite, but there was more to this than first meets the eye, which again I found intriguing.

Some people have criticised the book for not being critical enough about issues of plastic surgery, appearance anxiety, self-harm, and even basing a book around rivalry between two teenage girls over a boy.  I would say that I think perhaps Uglies is a bit more subtle than those people give it credit for.  The book is clearly not in favour of image alteration to create some sort of false ideal of beauty but neither does it yearn uncritically for the ‘freedom’ of the 21st century and all the issues that, in Uglies, were associated with that time – conflict, self-loathing and more.  I liked the fact that, while the rebels are advocating avoiding The Operation in favour of choice, they are still looking for a form of society which avoids the mistakes of the past.  Westerfeld doesn’t make us think we’ve already got it sorted.

Equally, when it comes to the tension between Tally and Shay, Westerfeld is surely drawing on realistic situations.  Teenager friends do fall out (and back in) with each other over relationships.  He’s not saying that’s right but it does happen.  I don’t feel that Tally’s motivation is driven by her desire to have a boyfriend.  She’s a lost, confused girl, a situation that a lot of teenagers will sympathise with, not sure what she should do, partly driven by her insecurity and desire to ‘fit in’, until she realises there may be something more out there, at which point she starts to be really quite heroic.  There are vastly worse role models out there in many low-rate teen-relationship-drama books, as well as bestsellers like Twilight.  Tally is a hell of a lot more positive than someone like Bella, even if she’s not quite up to the standard of Lyra Bellacqua or Katniss Everdeen.

So – the conclusion? I enjoyed Uglies. It was a fun, thought-provoking adventure, albeit definitely an easy read. Something like this would be a good stepping up point between younger reads and something a bit more hard-hitting, like the Hunger Games trilogy.  A good book, and hopefully a good series, for lovers of lighter dystopian fiction.

Kate Neilan

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