I read/listened to each of these books individually and did write-ups on each one, with the intention of writing a review covering the entire series. This is that review.
My individual write-ups can be accessed at the following links:
Note: While I avoided spoilers for each book, I did refer to events of earlier books once I got past the first.
The remainder of this review will be placed behind spoiler tags. Spoilers for all four books follow.
When the book begins, Tally Youngblood is three months away from turning 16 years old. She lives in one of those future dystopian worlds in which everything changes when you turn 16. (If you have read many YA dystopian novels, this is likely a phenomenon you know fairly well.) In the case of the Uglies-verse, everyone gets plastic surgery upon turning 16, transforming them from an "ugly" to a "pretty." The "ugly" stage lasts from age 12 to 16, and during that stage, uglies live in dormitories and attend school as they await their pivotal birthday. From birth to age 12, children are considered "littlies," and live with their parents in suburban communities. The 16-year-olds who undergo the operation are called "new pretties," and they move to New Pretty Town, separated by a river from Uglyville. The other life stages are "Middle Pretties" and "Crumblies," with other surgeries associated with them. (We never get many details about those, though.)
The inciting incident at the start of Uglies is Tally sneaking into New Pretty Town to crash a party, so she can see her bestie, Peris. (I spent most of Uglies listening to the audio and thinking his name was PARIS, but then I discovered in the text version that he's PERIS. PERIS?!?!?!) Peris is three years older than Tally, and she feels lost being separated from him. They once made matching scars on their wrists to show they would always be best friends, but the Peris she catches up with at the pretties party is not only beautiful, but he no longer has the scar.
Although she catches up with Peris at the party, the most significant event of the night is meeting Shay during her dramatic escape (she has used a bungee jacket to jump from the roof of the mansion where the party is being held and is on the run to evade patrolling marshals). Shay is also an ugly, who coincidentally shares a birthday with Shay, and has also sneaked into New Pretty Town because she misses 16-year-old friends. Shay and Tally spend the next three months becoming close friends, while engaging in "tricks," including sneaking out of the confines of the city into the "Rusties Ruins." (Rusties are basically us, the people who destroyed the environment, clear-cut land, and engaged in wars 300+ years before the action of the quadrilogy.)
On the cusp of turning 16, Shay reveals that she does not want the operation. She is running away to a place known as "The Smoke," where people live in "the wild," free from the conformity of the city. She leaves coded instructions Tally can follow if she decides also to escape to The Smoke. And while Tally still wants to become a pretty and resume her friendship with Peris, she is given an unexpected ultimatum. Dr. Cable, who is with a unit called "Special Circumstances," urges Tally to follow after Shay, infiltrate the "smokies," and use a tracking device (hidden in a heart-shaped locket), to alert the "Specials" to the location. If she does not fulfill the request, she will not be given the "pretty" operation. Reluctantly, she does as asked.
When she is reunited with Shay and is accepted into the group, Tally becomes increasingly sympathetic with their ways, and decides she does not want to betray them. During that time, David, Shay's original contact person and recruiter to the smokies, of course falls in love with Tally (because she's the protagonist of a YA dystopian novel). David introduces Tally to her parents, Maddy and Az, doctors who used to the "pretty" surgery and know the dark secret behind it. Not only does the operation give its recipient beautiful faces and super-healthy bodies, but it results in brain lesions that make the new pretties compliant and not terribly smart!
Tally believes she can destroy the tracking device by burning the locket, but instead that actually reveals the location to the smokies. So it's an accidental betrayal. The specials ("cruel pretties," per Tally's description) descend upon The Smoke. Most are captured, to be taken to Special Circumstances and given the surgery. David and Tally of course escape and are able to mount a valiant rescue. By the end, Shay has been made pretty, Az is dead, Maddy and David know about the accidental betrayal, and Maddy proffers a cure to pretty-headedness, which Shay (whom they have taken with them) refuses to take. Shay, wishing to do penance for the betrayal, offers to allow herself to be captured and made pretty, so she can take the cure.
Tally is pretty, living in pretty housing, and besties with Shay. Most of their energy is devoted to preparing themselves for parties and trying to get into the best clique, The Crims. Zane is the leader of that particular clique, and he annoys the heck out of me by having a cutesy device where he asks people how many "milli-Helens" something or someone has. It's a reference to the mythological Helen, whose face launched a thousand ships. So a "milli-Helen" can launch one ship. It's a silly measure of how awesome something is. Probably.
The Crims are all about pulling stunts and being "bubbly." Being bubbly means you're not just being a boring, placid pretty, and on some level, Zane and his clique-mates perceive their is something wrong with their brains. At the first party of the book, Croy infiltrates, to leave a special message for Tally. She and Zane later go on an adventure to retrieve it (after quickly becoming a couple), and have to climb into an old elevator shaft to retrieve a pouch containing two pills and a letter from Tally to herself. It was her informed consent, transcribed by Shay (because "kids today" don't learn to handwrite anymore, and Shay had learned in preparation for being a smokie). While Tally dithers over whether to take the pills, Special Circumstances hover cars create a sense of urgency. She and Zane quickly decide to each take one pill.
There is a protracted period where Tally, Zane, and other Crims wish to run away to the New Smoke (which Tally has semi-made up), but they can't because Tally and Zane have been fitted with monitoring bracelets. Much of the book is devoted to devising a way to get rid of the bracelets. Ultimately they do, but on escape night, Zane and Tally are separated, because Peris gets scared and decides to stay behind. Trying to convince him to come along slows down Tally, so of course, she ends up making a giant journey on her own (mirroring her journey in the first book; a pattern that repeats in Specials). Peris, by the way, is marginal in this book, and will be even more marginal in the next. It's hard to believe he and Tally were ever BFF.
The end of this book somewhat mirrors the end of Uglies. Maddy, David, Zane, and Tally are together, along with members of the New Smoke. Zane has been suffering from debilitating headaches, and Maddy reveals it's because the two pills were different. The one Zane took was the one that actually got rid of the lesions. But the pills work by unleashing "nanos" that eat brain tissue, and the second pill, the one Tally took, stops the nanos. So, the changes Tally has been going through (she has been getting more and more "bubbly") must have been placebo effect and maybe also sheer will. So, at the close of the book, most of the new smokies are fleeing, because the specials are coming, the specials are coming. But Tally won't abandon Zane, who needs medical care. And guess who the newest special is. SHAY! She jabs a needle into Tally's neck, and... CURTAIN!
In which I hate Tally.
Tally has been made into a special. And not just any special--a VERY SPECIAL special. Back in Pretties, Shay was so desperate to be bubbly she formed a "cutter" clique, who all got together and cut themselves to make and keep themselves bubbly. Somehow, all the cutters were made into teenage specials, and Shay is their "boss." Tally is part of this group, and she and her fellow cutters cut themselves and perform stunts to keep themselves "icy." It's like "bubbly" but with more clarity.
Becoming special involves more surgeries--face, brain and body. The specials have sharp features, coal-black eyes, super-strong, muscled bodies, knife-like teeth and nails, and sociopathic brains. They look down on anyone non-special as "random," and to them, pretties are all "bubbleheads." They are given to fits of rage and feelings of superiority.
The "cutter" specials spend all their time camping outdoors and patrolling New Pretty Town and Uglyville. According to rumors, smokies are colluding with uglies to bring the cure to pretties. Oh, noes!
Tally wants Zane to be made special, but there's a problem. He suffered permanent neurological damage from his cure (in Pretties), and he has slight tremors. Shay assures Tally that if Zane escapes, Dr. Cable will be convinced that he is "specials" material. They hatch a plot to help him and some fellow Crims escape and reach the smokies. This will involve finding a way to remove a collar from Zane (sound familiar?). Shay's plan for that involves breaking into an armory that has weapons dating back to the "rusties" time. It's an overlong, boring action scene that leads to disaster and later unintended consequences, but Tally and Shay get what they're there for, and Tally removes the collar from Zane.
There is a long, dull sequence involving Zane and his group of Crims (including superfluous Peris) going on a journey into the wild to find their contact who will take them to the smokies. Tally follows at a distance to make sure they make it, and at one point, Zane catches her. They kiss, even though he disgusts her now. He urges her to rewire her brain.
The Crims are taken via helicopter to a distant city called Diego. Tally stows away by holding onto the bottom of the helicopter. In Diego, Tally is shocked to learn that everyone has taken the cure. Uglies, pretties, middle pretties, littlies, and crumblies co-exist. Instead of having standard faces devised by a Pretty Committee, people have features and modifications of all kinds.
Meanwhile, Tally discovers that Maddy has also developed a cure for special-brain. Fausto, a fellow "cutter," has taken the cure and tries to stick Tally with a syringe so that she can, too. But she doesn't want to lose her special-mindedness, and flees. She is captured and brought to a hospital, where she is to be forcibly operated on, as her body is considered a lethal weapon. However, all hell breaks loose because Special Circumstances from Tally's city is waging war against Diego.
What? But that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore. That was a "rusty" thing, wasn't it?
Diego is being blamed for what Tally and Shay did in the Armory. This is being declared a "special circumstance."
During the mayhem, Shay helps Tally get away. Does Shay know that Fausto has been "cured" of his special-brain? You bet, and Fausto has cured Shay! Not thinking like a special anymore is a relief. But Shay believes that Tally should hold off on getting cured herself. The plan is to return to Dr. Cable and confess about the armory. If Dr. Cable scans them, it will be better if one of them is still special.
Oh, and there is one more thing. Zane tried to get a cognitive and physical upgrade, but something went wrong, and during the attack, the emergency system broke down. He's on life support, and he is going to die the moment he is unplugged. So he's about to die and it's all Tally's fault! She does a final goodbye.
Shay's plan is to leave at first light, so of course, Tally has to go off on her own while Shay is sleeping. Because she's Tally. Back at home, Shay is ready to make the confession, but she discovers that Dr. Cable knows who is responsible for the armory incident. And she blamed Diego anyway. Because it's a convenient excuse, and Dr. Cable is evil. Tally's new plan is to make the confession to the Council. But instead of being led to the Council, Tally is taken down to a sub-basement. Where the final confrontation with Dr. Cable happens. And the Villain Confession. Which Tally says she recorded with her special device. Which is actually the syringe that has the cure of special-brain. And Dr. Cable sticks herself with it, while trying to snatch it away.
So, the cure sinks in and the war is called off. World saved! Tally reconnects with David, and devises her "plan to save the world." She issues a manifesto.
So, at first glance, Extras seems to have little to do with the first three books, beyond being in the same universe, almost three years later--in Japan. But Aya Fuse, the main character, stumbles upon a hot story that appears to uncover devices that could destroy the world. So Tally, Shay, Fausto, and David show up. And there are alien-looking figures involved. But it turns out they actually want to save humanity by colonizing space. Who knew?
As described in my write-up of Extras, I was not a fan of Aya for the first third of the book. She lies to the Sly Girls, who don't want publicity, and pretends she's not into kicking stories anymore. Except she secretly still does. But the girl does grow and change. It's also fun to have the main cast of Extras interacting with Tally, Shay, Fausto, and David, and vice versa. In both cases, we get characters making comments that readers might have been thinking. The book provides some closure that was lacking at the end of Specials.
Tally is a reluctant heroine for much of this. In some ways, I felt Shay could have been a better protagonist. I wish she had accepted the cure for special-brain! As suggested above, I felt Peris was really wasted in the series. Westerfeld could have done something cool with a close, platonic friendship between a girl and a boy.