The Special Ones is an addictive and thrilling novel, written by Em Bailey.
Esther is one of the Special Ones – four teenagers who live under his protection in a remote farmhouse. The Special Ones are not allowed to leave, but why would they want to? Here, they are safe from toxic modern life, safe from a meaningless existence, safe from their endless work. He watches them every moment of every day, ready to punish them if they forget who they are – all while broadcasting their lives to eager followers on the outside.
Esther knows he will renew her if she stops being Special. And yet she also knows she’s a fake. She has no ancient wisdom, no genuine advice to offer her followers. But like an actor caught up in an endless play, she must keep up the performance if she wants to survive long enough to escape.
It’s been a while since I read Em Bailey’s previous novel, Shift, but from what I can remember, it was one of the creepiest and captivating books that I’d read in a long time. If you read Shift, like me, and wondered how this novel could even compete with Em’s previous one because nothing could possibly be as eerie and have the same unsettling effect on you, after reading The Special Ones, I can assure you that you won’t be let down. Like Shift, The Special Ones captured me from the very first page, drawing me into this chilling world and creating an ominous tone, ensuring that I wouldn’t be able to put the book down until I found out how it ended. This thrilling and irresistible novel should definitely be on your To Read list.
The whole concept of this novel was really my favourite part. Essentially, a small group of teenagers have been kidnapped and forced into assuming the roles of ‘The Special Ones’, communicating with their ‘followers’ and living the lie in order to stay safe from the threat of being ‘renewed’ – a process where one of the teenagers is taken away and never seen again, and in their place returns a completely new person who must learn how to take on the role of the one who was no longer deemed worthy. The man who forced these teenagers to live in an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, playing a sadistic game of make-believe, is the one who watches their every move and make sure they comply to his orders. The Special Ones was the type of book that I couldn’t read past midnight, when all of the lights in my house were turned out except my dim bedside lamp, the wind howling outside the windows and a chill settling on the air. Like any good thriller, it made my imagination run wild and my heart pound. This is definitely a book to be read with all the lights on.
I felt that the thing that really drove this novel was the plot. The characters were interesting enough, but what made me want to keep reading was not knowing what was going to happen and being desperate the get the answers to the questions that kept arising. There was no satisfaction at the end of each chapter: the chapters left me craving more. But one of my issues with The Special Ones was that even the ending left me craving more. I felt as though there weren’t enough answers and I still had questions unanswered. Only some of my burning questions were extinguished, but others continued to sizzle, meaning this is a book that doesn’t leave your mind, even days after you finish reading it and move onto something else. While for some, the lack of firm conclusions on many points could result in a lesser enjoyment of this novel, I feel that the uncertainty was intentional. It was Em Bailey’s way of making her book stay in your mind and plague your thoughts. It’s what will get you to reread The Special Ones, desperately hoping for a more defined ending. I think that Em has a real talent for conjuring up stories that emit uncertainty and unease, the haunting passages staying with us past the last page.
Esther was a complicated character. As she was playing her role as a ‘Special One’, I felt like I could never really see who she really was. Her personality was moulded by how she was forced to live, and at times it was difficult to distinguish between her acting and her true self. But perhaps it’s this confusion in identity which makes her such an enigmatic figure. For the most part, I felt like I didn’t fully relate to her because of the way she was forced to wear this mask and play the part of a somewhat cold, level-headed figure. The characteristics that she was made to adopt made her feel a little closed off from the reader, and we only saw glimpses of her true self in the rare moments she was alone with her thoughts. What I liked most about Esther was the way she was determined to make life for the other people in this house as ‘easy’ as possible. Even though there were some clashes in beliefs at times, she always tried to protect her ‘siblings’ because she knew they were all in this together and in order to stay alive, they had to stick together. In that way, she almost took on a maternal role. But perhaps a reason why I didn’t feel fully connected to her was because we didn’t see her vulnerable side much because of the way she was forced to act. Her true emotions felt buried and inaccessible to me.
I think one issue with this plot in regards to the depth of character for each person we got to know was that the assuming of these roles meant that we never really found out much backstory of the characters. What we learnt about them was rather superficial because of their predicament and how they were unable to speak about their past. Because of that, forming a bond with these characters was difficult. While these characters were interesting enough, they’re not especially memorable. One character that is memorable, on the other hand, is the person who remains unnamed for the majority of the novel, simply known as ‘Him’ by the teenagers in the farmhouse. But why he’s memorable is probably for the wrong reasons. It’s not because he was a man whose warped ideals haunt us, but because his whole personality felt forced and fake. It was disappointing to find that the insanity and paranoia he suffered from felt clichéd and I didn’t really get to see a different side to him. It would have been great to have just a speck of sympathy for him instead of loathing his one-dimensionally evil nature. Instead, his backstory was complicated and confusing, meaning while I was supposedly told why he was committing these acts, there was a lack of clarity and insight into many of his choices.
Overall, what made this book so ‘special’ for me was the way it drew me in, wrapping me up in this creepy, one-of-a-kind thriller. If you’re a fan of Shift or like reading YA psychological-thrillers, I’d definitely recommend giving this one a go! I’d live The Special Ones by Em Bailey a score of 8 out of 10. Let’s discuss this book! Have you picked up this one yet? Does it sound like something you’d be interested in reading? What are some of your favourite psychological-thrillers? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks to Hardie Grant Egmont Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!