Friday, 29 June 2012

Novel Review - Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, is a book with a fantastic premise. At the age of sixteen, you go from being an Ugly to a Pretty, designed to be as pleasing to the eye as possible. Tally Youngblood has been left alone, however, being the last of her friends to turn sixteen. She soon befriends a girl called Shay, however, who shares the same birthday. There's a problem: Shay doesn't want to become Pretty, and when she runs away Tally is given a pretty vicious choice. Betray her friend or lose her future.

This is not as great a novel as it is a premise. It's certainly and enjoyable read that does have a lot going for it, but the most prevalent thing about this novel is that it could be better. The prose is somewhat microcosmic in this sense. Westerfeld writes with a smooth and engaging style that is highly readable, but his prose lacks anything that makes it memorable or evocative. It would be easy to dismiss criticisms of Westerfeld's prose on the back of the YA classification, sure, but good writing doesn't necessarily need to be too difficult for an age in which children have been taught classic novels in school for a good number of years already. Westerfeld's writing is above average admittedly, but that's always somewhat backhanded as compliments go.

The world is well thought out and what we get to see of it is highly engaging. From the more overt things that make up the world to the smaller details that seem to reflect a society based on conformity and aesthetic beauty, there's more thought here than the one-note dystopian future. Westerfeld routes the reader's experience of the world firmly in Tally's viewpoint - inevitably this leads to a fairly small, closed view of the world. As much as this helps keep the onus on the characters, it does detract from the setting and society in a book that is, in theory, about the society.

If we stop talking about the themes and start talking about the characters, Uglies becomes a lot better a book for it. Tally is a lovely girl and an eminently relateable one, and it's a great credit that Westerfeld makes her so whilst pushing her in directions that, at times, even going so far as to almost become an anti-hero of sorts. That she retains personality whilst being actively shaped by her environment is exactly the right way to characterise her, and gives her a real depth and legitimacy.

To a great extent, the ensuing plot is more melodrama than anything else. Much of the cast outside our heroine aren't as well utilised as they could be - again, there's a lot more potential than there is end product. Nonetheless, highly-readable prose, great imagination and interesting characterisation make this a worthy read. If it's not worth reading to see the central concept at work, then it is worth reading to be involved with an interesting and well-paced character story.

Overall, Uglies is a solid and enjoyable story that will, hopefully, be the awkward growing pains of a series that can evolve to be legitimately fantastic.

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