The Special Ones live on a secluded farmstead surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. They live without electricity, running water, and modern conveniences. By day, they do their chores, cooking and cleaning, caring for the crops and the animals; by night, they answer questions from their followers. Esther answers questions about natural and herbal healing; Harry answers questions about sustainable farming; Lucille answers questions about bringing beauty to the world; Felicity answers questions about how to live life with childlike joy and wonder.
They live wholesomely, safe from the dangers of the outside world.
But there is danger within the walls of their compound, because he is always watching. He has cameras everywhere, he monitors their interactions with the followers, he metes out punishments as he sees fit… and he decides when it’s time for one of the Special Ones to be replaced.
Books I thought of while reading The Special Ones:
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: I’m in the middle of a really close read of this one at the moment, which certainly results in seeing parallels in almost every other story I encounter, but these connections aren’t a stretch. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Special Ones deals with the idea of imprisonment—of a lack of rights—as safety, and it has the same anachronistic feel, in that Esther wears a corset and petticoats and churns her own butter, but also uses email to interact with her followers.
James Dashner’s The Maze Runner: Like The Maze Runner, new additions to the Special Ones compound arrive confused and angry, and are forced to adjust to this new life without much coddling or help. Unlike The Maze Runner, new additions have their old memories—they know they’ve been kidnapped—but through a combination of brainwashing and (mostly) psychological torture, they come around to their new roles pretty quickly.
Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls: About halfway through The Special Ones, the perspective shifts, and we get to see the action through his eyes. And the way he sees and talks about Esther is almost exactly the same as the way the killer in The Shining Girls sees and talks about his victims, right down to the grody voyeuristic tone and the halo of light.
The Special Ones is reminiscent of lots of other books to be sure, but it’s still a solid, original story in its own right. It’s claustrophobic and smart—and unusually in a story like this, actually provides specific details about long-term life on the farm like how the older girls contend with their periods. It’s about trust and sacrifice and morality, and considers the lengths to which people will go—the harm they will do to others—in order to survive.
It deals with power dynamics and with the subtext of communication—how to relay information while you’re being watched, how to express yourself or ask a question without the watcher noticing that you’re doing it. It deals with celebrity, how we build people up and tear them down again, and it deals with the attitude of male ownership over female bodies—of how some men feel entitled to the object of their “affection,” whether said “object” is into it or not. It deals with culture shock and with how hard it is to adjust to an entirely different way of life, and with how it can be almost harder to adjust to having more freedom and more free time than it is to having less.
It’s not a perfect read—the ending is extremely emotionally anticlimactic and somewhat rushed, and once he becomes an actual character on the page, the tension takes a nose-dive. But! It’s a book that I blew through in one sitting, and certainly strong enough to prompt me to order a copy of the author’s previous book.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.