A Review in 3 Parts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Bad (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of my review of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series.  For part 1, click here. Also, be forewarned, spoilers for the series abound.

While, as I mentioned in my previous post, I really enjoyed the Uglies series, that does not mean that the books are perfect.  There were a couple of things that, for me, could have been improved, or took away from the story at large.  These problems were by no means enough to cause me to put the books down, but I felt they should be noted.

First, the pacing of all four novels was a bit uneven.  There were large swaths of chapters in each book in which very little happened.  Tally sat around and sulked in Uglyville and Shay taught her to ride a hoverboard.  Tally sat around, hung over, and Shay got her into the Crim clique in New Pretty Town.  Tally and Shay worked for the Specials hunting the New Smoke, then Tally tailed some Crims down the coast for a REALLY LONG TIME.  To be fair, this was where Westerfeld painted his background and laid the world-building groundwork for the rest of the novel, but these sections still went by very, very slowly.  Then, all of a sudden, action, action, action, action. Then, more sulking.  Lots of talking.  Then a final flurry of action to wrap up some of the story lines and set up the plot of the next book.  From an analytical point of view, I understand that not every chapter can be action packed, but as a reader, it was jarring to switch pace so abruptly and to such extremes.

The weakest parts of the novels, for me, were the love triangles.  They often felt tedious and by the time we reached the plot of Specials, I felt myself shouting at Shay, “Just get over it already!”  To break it down for you: Tally arrives at The Smoke and David quickly falls in love with her, making Shay feel rejected by her crush and jealous of her best friend.  Then the Specials raid the Smoke and Shay figures out that it is Tally’s fault.  Once Shay and Tally are made into Pretties, they forget all about David, but a tension remains between them.  Tally falls for the leader of the Crims, Zane, making it clear that she is attracted to men in positions of power who are also slightly anti-social.  When Tally first kisses Zane, it makes her so “bubbly” (or clear headed) that she sighs David’s name.  But Zane is totally cool with it, because he was also thinking of David (um, what?)  Zane and Tally find the cure the Smokies have left for her and decide to split the two pills, not realizing that they were meant to be taken together.  Shay gets jealous of Tally’s “bubbly” new attitude and her newfound fame and starts searching out her own way to become more bubbly: cutting herself with knives (see post 3 for more on this.) In becoming bubbly, she remembers the ways Tally “stole” David, (oh and how Tally betrayed Smokies to the Specials) and so she hates Tally again.   The pill Zane took makes him quite sick, so Tally and Zane run away to the New Smoke, where David is waiting.  Jealous, David is convinced that Tally will choose Zane over him because Zane is more attractive.  Shay, picked up by Special Circumstances and transformed into one of their own, arrives at The New Smoke to arrest the members and is full of venom, jealousy and latent anger for Tally stealing David and then rejecting him, so to get revenge, she makes sure Tally is turned into a special so they can be friends again.

The back and forth between Shane and Tally continues for the rest of the series: it seems that no matter what happens, Shane and Tally remain friends out of habit and circumstance, while deep down, they seem to hate one another.  Their relationship is complex but at times the tension feels forced, like an editor kept telling Westerfeld “we need more love triangle stuff in here!”  With all that has passed between them and all the terrible things they have done to one another, either by accident or on purpose, the fact that the fight always seems to come back down to “Tally stole David from Shay” seems a little silly and unfair.  These girls repeatedly free themselves from the powerful forces that have mind-wiped an entire civilization for generations, but they can’t get over a little teenage boy trouble?  Isn’t it possible for two young women to have differences of opinions or a difficult relationship centered around more than a boy?  For me, the story would have been much more interesting if Shay and Tally had disagreed about, say, how to save the world or how to distribute the cure, rather than “you stole my kinda-boyfriend!”

While the love stories/conflicts were not exactly my cup of tea, I could very much understand why teens and adults would enjoy the series so much. The evils of story were evils that I think many people can relate to.  Tally is constantly feeling like she doesn’t quite belong, because she thinks a little differently.  She is skeptical of anyone who can buy into an ethos or a clique completely, without questions and in the world of the bubbleheads, there is no one to question at all.  For years, we have heard about the dangers of peer pressure and the media, especially on young women, to make them do drastic things to themselves in the name of beauty and fitting in.  In proper dystopian fashion, the Uglies series takes these concerns and builds an entire world around them.

Finally, I think there are a lot of people who recognize that our current society consumes and expands at a rate that is unsustainable, but also recognize that changing these facts will mean changing our way of life and sacrificing some of the things we have come to take for granted.  This series explores what those sacrifices might look like and pushes the idea to a terrifying extreme.  Even Tally notes that even as The Smoke fights to save the citizens of the city, their way of life, living in the woods, burning trees, is not sustainable for the larger populations.  So even though the Uglies series is not perfect, it does address some massive concerns through its dystopian form.

Stay tuned for my last post: the ugly of The Uglies

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

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