But as the days drag by, Tally meets a fellow Ugly named Shay who sees things differently. Shay tells Tally about the Smoke, a secret town inhabited by runaways who don't want to undergo the pretty operation. At first Tally can't understand why anyone would want to stay Ugly, but Shay doesn't see it that way. She thinks people look fine the way they are, and that there's a sinister side to the pretty operation. She decides to run away before her sixteenth birthday, despite the fact that Tally refuses to go with her.
On the day of her operation, Tally's anticipation is clouded only by the fact that Shay won't be joining her in New Pretty Town. But Tally's excitement soon evaporates when she's hauled in by the mysterious Special Circumstances, who give her an ultimatum. Lead them to Shay and the Smoke, or stay ugly forever.
I'm a big believer in the importance of writing objective reviews, but I'd like to start this one with a confession: I love Uglies. I loved it the first time I read it, three years ago, and I've loved it each of the six or seven times I've reread it since. It's a vivid, relevant and exhilarating dystopia which somehow manages to be thought-provoking and wicked good fun at the same time. It's official: I'm an Uglies fangirl.
First up, there's the fascinating premise. Scott Westerfeld has created a vision of the future which addresses issues about self-perception that today's teens commonly face, and gives us food for thought about our own society. In Tally's world, anyone under sixteen has had it drummed into them that before surgery they're all ugly, since being pretty is really a matter of conforming to mathematical ideals like perfect symmetry which we're programmed to seek out in others for the good of the species. Genetic traits are viewed as the cause of all injustice in archaic societies like that of the 'Rusties' (that's us), but the leaders of Tally's society say that human beings can't help it - it's hard-wired into our brains. So instead of trying to build a more enlightened society, they decided to turn everyone into the model of wide-eyed, clear-skinned beauty that everyone else would naturally adore. To Tally, who's been raised on stories about the horror of Rusty society, this sounds like progress. Her world doesn't have wars, the people are happy, and besides - who wouldn't want to be pretty?
In addition, Uglies has some of the most outstanding world-building I've encountered in a YA dystopia. It's detailed and thorough, with the kind of wish-fulfilment technology that'll make gadget enthusiasts green with envy. Take transport: since the Rusties' civilisation ended when a manmade virus destroyed the world's oil, cars are no longer an option in Tally's time. So she and her friends get around using solar powered hoverboards, wearing magnetic 'crash bracelets' to stop them smashing themselves up when they take a spill. Aside from technology, Uglies also contains some highly infectious slang and an intriguing rebel society in the form of the Smokies - who, unlike the city-dwellers, horrify Tally at first by eating meat and killing trees for firewood.
But my absolute favourite thing about Uglies is the characters. Tally Youngblood is a product of her society, and a result she's a far cry from most of the MCs you'll meet in YA dystopia. She doesn't start out with unshakeable integrity or the ability to see through her society's ideals. She initially follows Shay to secure her own pretty future, and so her inner journey in this book is very much about becoming her own person and learning to take responsibility for her actions. The initial friendship between Tally and Shay becomes gradually more complex as the story unfolds and they become caught up in a love triangle with the legendary David, making for some interesting conflict and setting the tone for the rest of the series. In Uglies we also meet the chilling Dr Cable, head of Special Circumstances (think secret police) who illustrates that there's a fine line between pretty perfect and pretty terrifying. It's the first in a series where the relationships between characters can often be ambiguous and complicated, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about some difficult moral grey areas.
As Uglies is the first book in a series, I have to warn potential readers that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I have mixed feelings about this, as with a more satisfying ending Uglies could have made a brilliant standalone novel. Much as I love it, I can't help but think that some of the impact of Uglies was sacrificed to set up the rest of the trilogy. However, my repeated rereading of this one is evidence that this is by no means a deal-breaker. The first time I read it, I found myself staring at the last page, utterly bereft, for the entire thirty seconds it took me to decide that I was heading straight out to the bookstore to get myself a copy of book two. Luckily, the whole series has now been published, so there's no need for an agonising wait between instalments. I'd recommend Uglies to all fans of YA dystopia, particularly those who are looking for an immersive read with substance. This one has 'modern YA classic' written all over it.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK for providing a review copy of the reissued Uglies with its gorgeous new cover (pictured).