Scott Westerfeld, Specials (Simon Pulse, 2006)

Specials presents the Earth three hundred years from now, where plastic surgery is obligatory when you turn sixteen, countries are replaced by cities independent of the others, hover boards are a favourite toy, wars are a thing of the past, and oblivious Bubbleheads ensure that crime is virtually non-existent. In fact, the twenty-first century is but a distant memory, dating from before the Rusties, a crazed group of people that attempted to poison the planet. (It's disconcerting how gas masks, helicopters and the like are things that belong in museums.)

Tally has been through it all. She began life as an Ugly, forced to live across the river from the Pretties, but that didn't suit her. She fled into the wild, found the New Smoke camp (they are the Uglies that refuse to get plastic surgery to become stupid, rewired Pretties), and fell in love. But Tally didn't like that either. She returned to the city, and got that bloody plastic surgery. Despite the fact that her features were changed, and despite the doctors' efforts to make her clueless and controllable, Tally thought her way out of being a Bubblehead (another word for the Pretties). This brought her a lot of attention, both good and bad. Now, after another round of altering surgery, she is a Special Circumstances officer, but more specifically a Cutter.

Her reflexes are sharper, her body is stronger, and her cruel beauty brings terror to all those that see her. She and her fellow Cutters have earned their name from the scars on their hands and arms caused by the repeated wounds they inflict on themselves to think clearly, icily. Their mission is simple: find the New Smoke and rid the world of their irritating nosiness in the cities' affairs. After all, plastic surgery isn't all bad, is it?

Problems arise when Tally and her friends discover that the low-tech Smokies aren't so low-tech any more. Where are they getting all their equipment? Where is their camp? Tally and Shay, the leader of the Cutters, decide to recruit Tally's boyfriend, Zane, to help them. He may be but a Pretty, but he is also very clever. They concoct a plan to free Zane and his equally intelligent friends, the Crims, involving a grand escape into the wild, and a devilishly easy way to find the New Smoke. Let's just say that things don't go according to plan.

Tally finds herself at the cause of a new, grotesque problem that jeopardises the peace reigning between the cities. She must absolutely fix things, despite tragedy and betrayal. Perhaps her ability for breaking the rules will work to her advantage. . . .

I know that Specials sounds incredibly interesting, and it is, but I must warn you that it is much easier to follow the story if you know Tally's history, which involves reading Uglies and Pretties. I, for one, did not have the luxury of doing so, but no matter, I got through it without short-circuiting.

It is an action-packed, unique and slightly disturbing story (I refer to the obligatory plastic surgery, of course), but amazing and delightful all the same. I particularly enjoyed the grand finale for its lack of romance and/or great personal sacrifice, and the heroine didn't stumble across the solution (she didn't need to shoot lasers out of her eyes, either). No, there is nothing corny or common about it.

However, I believe I should complain about something or other, and so I now mention the continuous adventure. This sounds ridiculous, but as there is always something happening, it is difficult to make particularly important events stand out from the rest. The climax itself was only slightly more intense than a common, everyday hover board chase that took place in the first few chapters. How very disappointing. I must also note that Tally, to a certain extent, comes across as a selfish, stubborn teenage girl, not to mention proud and completely unable to follow the rules (but after all, she is Special).

Scott Westerfeld was born in Texas in 1963, is married to Australian author Justine Larbalestier, composed a few pieces of music for New York dancers and has quite the repertoire of books. Specials is the third novel in the Uglies trilogy, the two others respectively called Uglies and Pretties. He has written another trilogy for young adults, Midnighters, and three lone books, Peeps, The Last Days and So Yesterday (which won the Victorian Premier's Award). Peeps and Uglies were both declared Best Books for Young Adults in 2006. He also wrote five science fiction novels for adults, The Risen Empire and its sequel, The Killing of Worlds, along with Evolution's Darling (which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2000 and won a Special Citation for the 2000 Philip K. Dick Award), Fine Prey and Polymorph (Green Man has also reviewed The Last Days, and Midnighters-The Secret Hour). Several of his short stories can be found on the Internet. The Uglies trilogy was optioned to be made into a film by Twentieth Century Fox for 2006. Scott Westerfeld has his own user-friendly Web site where one can find a list of books wih their summary, his biography, his blog and one of his ghost stories.

[Claire Owen]