One of the earlier examples of dystopian fiction before it blew up into super-popularity due to The Hunger Games and Divergent, the Uglies series was a hit for author Scott Westerfeld and introduces a futuristic world where the United States is long gone and leave its wasting skyscrapers and automobiles as “Rusty” relics due to a petroleum virus that wiped out most of the planet. New cities have formed, functioning like prisons, letting no one out and no one in. Citizens are required to get an operation when they turn 16 making them into pretties, transforming their “ugly” bodies into flawless beauty and minds rewired by shallow concerns. New pretties spend their days partying in New Pretty Town, having their every need met–from beautiful clothes to to-die-for apartments–while the younger uglies play tricks and live in squalor.
Tally Youngblood is ready for her birthday and her operation when her friend Peris becomes a New Pretty. Tally has three long months before she can join him and acts out by doing dangerous tricks, but when she’s running away from security after an epic trick, she meets Shay, another tricky Ugly with whom Tally shares her birthday. Shay and Tally form a fast friendship, but Shay decides to escape her Pretty operation by fleeing into the wilderness after the mysterious David. In retaliation for Tally and Shay’s friendship, Tally is prevented from becoming a Pretty by the Specials, cruel-looking pretties in charge of the city who demand she follow Shay and betray her. Tally has only two choices: betray Shay and become pretty or stay an ugly forever. She reluctantly sets out to meet Shay and David with a set of cryptic instructions, but Tally just might find she has a third option…one that changes her and ignites a chain reaction in the entire world.
When we left Tally, she had agreed to be a test subject for David’s mother, a talented scientist who thinks she can cure Pretties, because Tally wanted to save Shay who was captured by the Specials and forcibly given her operation. Now, Tally is a Pretty, and she, Shay, and Peris are trying to get into a Pretty clique, the Crims, a group of more daring and desirable New Pretties. Zane is leader of the Crims, and Tally finds herself drawn to him. He makes her feel bubbly or more alive. At the party with Zane, Tally is confronted by an oddly familiar face–Croy, of David’s Smokies, the people living free outside of the cities. Croy gives her a mystery that leads Tally and Zane to the two pills that contain the cure. When the Specials try to catch them, they split the pills and experience growing periods of clear thoughts. However, Zane begins to be very ill, and Tally must find him help outside the city, relying on the bubbly Crims to help her. Her two dangers are the Specials and Shay, who seems to have found her own way to be bubbly by cutting herself. But in their quest to become bubbly and succeeding, have they started a revolution?
Tally has changed once again as she has been taken by Special Circumstances and made into a Special, one of the talented new Cutters. She follows Shay, her leader and also the one who betrayed her and the Smokies. Tally is still conflicted, and can’t reconcile her love for her fellow Cutters and her love for Zane, who they think is helping the missing Smokies. To set a trap and keep Zane safe from the other Specials, they send him as bait into the wild with just Shay and Tally following him on a secret mission. However, Shay and Tally argue and decide to split off–Tally following Zane and the Crims and Shay following a technological pathway that only reveals the way to the Smokies one step at a time. What once was simple is growing more and more complicated as their new abilities and Tally’s extraordinarily adaptive thinking spur a radical change that could mean a global war.
In a new novel that exists in the Pretties world but fairly separate from the one readers have gotten to know, young Aya Fuse is dying to be a kicker (what equals a sort of social media journalist) and break the next big story, increasing her rank and fame. Right now, Aya is extra, not anyone important, but she knows a big secret that could change everything. She finds a secret clique that does dangerous stunts known as the Sly Girls. Determined to film them and launch them into fame and herself with it, she attempts to hunt them down and become one of them. Knowing her game, the Sly Girls goodnaturedly prevent her hovercam, Moggle, (think of Moggle kind of like Weebo in Flubber…) from working but allow her to ride the bullet trains with them. When they discover a secret entrance in a mountain, Aya follows an even bigger story, one that involves (an equivalent of) weapons of mass destruction and the possible obliteration of the world as they know it. The new dangers bring in a few old favorites as Tally, Shay, Fausto, and David enter into the adventure once more to protect the world with their special gifts, and Aya discovers the power she possesses to influence…
For middle grade readers who perhaps have finished The City of Ember series and are ready for a new dystopian but not quite up for the brutality and rough survival of The Hunger Games and Divergent or even Legend, this is a great series. They will connect with Tally because she, too, is on the edge of a big life change–moving from an ugly to a pretty, much similar to the move from child to teenager or from middle school to high school. Though Tally is about to turn 16, she acts and thinks much younger, finding herself very uncertain in her path and her choices. She wants to make the right ones, and she struggles to understand the consequences. We watch as Tally starts out as a self-centered mediocre rebel, forced to become a puppet, and yet every time she manages to think for herself. Despite her pre-disposition to follow the crowd and the odds of failure, Tally shows her own independence and strength of character and comes to succeed. In Extras, we find her still trying to save the world, maybe making mistakes getting there, but ultimately realizing them and setting them to rights. Aya offsets Tally’s narrow-minded views by showing a new way of thinking and discovering that the world isn’t so much in black and white/good and bad, but that it has gray areas and its best not to judge at first glance.
For my own sake, I just want to say this is one of THE HARDEST series to write about! It possesses it’s own jargon that you must conform to (and be utterly annoyed by) when attempting to describe it. (Note that there is basically a dictionary on the Uglies world called Bogus to Bubbly. ) While I thought this series was great for middle grade readers, I did not find Tally to be believable for a 16 year old narrator. She just acts too immature and too insecure than most 16 year olds, more like 12-14YOs instead. With that being said, some of the descriptions and lead-in just were also not convincing enough for older teen readers though they might still like the books. This might be attributed to her brain surgery, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good series. My favorite out of all of them was Extras, because I found the reputation ranking fascinating and Aya more likeable. I give this one a solid 3 stars.
Note: Brief sexual situations.