by M. Wayne Cunningham
In Scott Westerfeld's page-turning and thought-provoking first book (of his new trilogy about a future world), young Uglies live in the Orwellian, state-controlled, high-density dorms of Uglyville. At least this is where they're kept until they turn sixteen. Then they're eligible for the secret operation that transforms them into mind-benumbed but drop-dead gorgeous, eye-popping Pretties partying daily across the river in their high-tech world of New Pretty Town with its own rules of, "Act Stupid, Have Fun and Make Noise."
Westerfeld's heroine, Tally Youngblood, is just three months shy of the magic morphing she has yearned for since childhood when she meets worldly-wise Shay. Shay, who is convinced ugly is only as ugly does, doesn't want either her brain or her body to be tampered with. In trying to bring Tally over to her way of thinking, Shay shows her how to subvert the sophisticated surveillance systems shielding New Pretty Town, and how to hoverboard like a professional. Sometimes Shay talks to Tally "in a mysterious way, like she was quoting the lyrics of some band no one else listened to," and finally she takes her to meet her legendary boyfriend and anti-Pretty superhero, David, at the Rusty Ruins, the shattered structures from a former world war, on the edge of the wild Smoke zone. It is the no-Pretties-allowed land, where David and his rebel Smokies hide from the cruel Dr. Cable and her Special Circumstances police with their unbridled powers to enforce conformity and the becoming-Pretty operations. Shortly after Shay escapes from Uglyville to join David, Tally, who's still convinced she wants to be a Pretty, is accosted by Dr. Cable, who threatens to cancel Tally's operation unless she helps her police force to track down David, Shay and their kind.
To Westerfeld's credit and the reader's delight, Tally's adventures become a white-knuckled, boot-strap hoverboard ride, as she deciphers a secret code Shay had given her for locating the rebels' hiding place in case she changed her mind and decided to join them. When she gets there the plot twists and turns. Shay becomes jealous of Tally, while David's followers question Tally's motives and loyalty. And while Tally is learning to appreciate the rebels' return-to-nature philosophy and understand their desire for freedom from an big brother conformity of thought and appearance, she accidentally activates Dr. Cable's tracking device, revealing the secret location of the hideout to the Special Circumstances forces, who attack and capture most of the Smokies, including Shay, and David's scientist parents who have been perfecting a pill to reverse the effects of the Ugly-to-Pretty operations. As the story races to its conclusion, David and Tally hoverboard behind enemy lines using chemical glowsticks to light the way. Then while their newly-enlisted band of subversives creates a fireworks diversion, they break into the Special Circumstances Building with the aid of their bungee jackets, powerjacks, and nanotech glue. But whether they arrive in time to rescue Shay, David's parents, and the rest of the Smokies, remains for Westerfeld's readers to find out. There'll be more of his fascinating world to read about as well in Pretties and Specials, the next books in the series. Hopefully, soon and hopefully with just as many highly imaginative challenges to our conventional thinking.