Review of “XVI” by Julia Karr

In this young adult dystopia, it is the year 2150, and life has gotten much worse for women. When a girl turns sixteen (or “sex-teen” as it is known), she gets an XVI tattooed on her wrist. This means she is now legal sex bait for anyone who can get to her. As the protagonist Nina Oberon, 15, explains:

“We’re all supposed to be so excited about sex and willing to do whatever with practically any guy who asks.”

Nina’s best friend Sandy, who pays constant attention to the propaganda, can’t wait:

“Sex has got to be the most ultra thing in the galaxy!”

Even Nina’s eleven-year-old sister Dee is excited about it:

“All the verts [advertisements] tell you how popular you’ll be if you dress and act so boys want to have sex with you.”

Nina, on the other hand, is not looking forward to having sex. She has seen the state-approved videos, but she has also seen the porn kept by her mother’s abusive boyfriend Ed, and never wants to be treated like that. Plus, she is afraid to lose who she is by falling in love with someone else.

Sandy is especially interested in being selected for training as a Female Liaison Specialist (FeLS). All fifteen year olds are required to fill out the forms for this mysterious position, and then “choosers” select from among them. They are told that FeLS “get to wear ultra clothes and hang out with vid stars and have all kinds of money.” Ed is a Chooser, but Nina’s mother Ginnie is adamant that Nina not get “chosen”; there are rumors it is just a cover for recruiting virgins for sex slavery to service upper-level government officials.

Ginnie is knifed to death one night, and Nina suspects Ed, but can’t prove it. Right before she died, Ginnie passed some shocking news on to Nina along with a cryptic last request, which Nina is determined to fulfill if only she can figure out how. Now orphaned, Nina and her sister Dee are sent to downtown Chicago to live with her grandparents, the parents of her dad who died right after she was born.

One day Nina sees a group of “’letes” (college athletes known for animalistic behavior) [insert sarcastic comment here about some things never changing even in dystopias], pummeling a homeless person. The homeless are considered to be “no better than river rats” and get beaten up and killed regularly. But Nina risks her own life to intervene. When the ‘letes leave, she is shocked to find the homeless person is a boy about her own age, and moreover, under all the scrapes and blood, he is attractive. His name is Sal Davis, and it turns out he goes to her new high school.

By hanging out with Sal and his friend Wei, Nina and her friends learn the dark secrets of the regime. With their help, she also is able to uncover the secrets of her mother’s life, and find the solution to the problem her mother passed on to her.

But Nina’s friend Sandy can never overcome the propaganda she was brought up to believe, and her willingness to buy into the system has tragic consequences.

Evaluation: I thought the darkness of the world created by the author was appropriate; it sounded like a definite possibility to me. It struck me as much more realistic than the similar but “lighter” dystopia portrayed by Lauren Oliver in Delirium. As for the exploitation of women, much of it was implied rather than described. By way of comparison, I tried to read an adult dystopia, The Windup Girl, written by Paolo Bacigalupi and published in September 2009. It won all kinds of awards, but the sexual abuse was so horrific I just could not get very far in my reading. This book includes mistreatment only by way of suggestion.

I also was not bothered, as some readers have been, by the fast chemistry between Sal and Nina; when I was her age, I continually “fell in love” for no reason whatsoever besides the way someone looked or walked or even the color of his hair. And I’ve known plenty of girls like Sandy. I would probably agree, however, with the criticisms I’ve seen that “the kids” are able to overcome obstacles a bit too readily before moving on to their next adventure. It served to elevate the mood, but did not help to impart a true-to-life flavor to the book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Puffin/Speak, 2011

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17 Responses to Review of “XVI” by Julia Karr

  1. Sandy says:

    You did such a good job of summarizing what I thought was a very complicated plot. I skipped the whole Fels thing. I actually agree with alot of what you said, so I don’t think we were ultimately that far apart in our views! 99% of the time, we are completely on the same page, and I would read anything you told me to!

  2. Ceri says:

    Wow, I’m not too sure what to make of the sound of this. It sounds very dark but I find it interesting that you said a lot of things were implied rather than it going into too much detail. I agree about kids falling in and out “of love” for little reasons too though – It’s what they do. At the age of 14, I fell completely head over heels “in love” with a 16-year-old boy in school with me. I’d turn a dark scarlet red every time he walked past and I just couldn’t stop dreaming about him. Then he left school … and I’d never spoken one word to him. Ever. Haha.

    • Ceri,
      I used to see guys with red hair and be INSTANTLY in love! I have NO IDEA why! Where I live now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one red-headed guy, thank heavens! :–)

  3. zibilee says:

    As I mentioned on Sandy’s blog, I think that the constant use of slang would get to me while reading this book, and although I am really loving the YA dystopias that I am reading, I am not sure this is the one for me. It’s also curious that you mention that there is so much sexual violence in The Wind-Up Girl. I bought the book last year, and I had no idea!

  4. Patti Smith says:

    This one sounds interesting…I don’t think I would be able to handle the graphic sexual abuse either right now so thanks for being frank about the difference in the YA and adult selections. My middle daughter falls in and out of love on a daily basis…Oy!

  5. Alyce says:

    I want to read this just because I plan on reading Delirium too, and I’d love to be able to compare and contrast. I’m glad I’m not the only one who couldn’t get into Windup Girl – it was such an odd book.

  6. I’m glad you liked this more than Sandy but I still think it’s not the book for me. I’m not a fan of dystopia lit, particularly YA dystopia lit.

  7. Vasilly says:

    I haven’t heard of this book before. It sounds interesting but I don’t read much YA nowadays. I didn’t even know that Windup Girl had sexual abuse in it. Since it’s as horrific as you say, I’m taking it off my tbr list. Great review.

  8. Julie P. says:

    I was expecting to come over here and see total differences — not! You enjoyed it more than Sandy but it doesn’t look like you were blown away either. Love that you are now being compared to Darth Vader though!

    As an aside, I love that you guys read the book and posted your reviews the same day. I’m trying to think of a neat way for this to be continued…. i.e. you guys set up two more people, and they set up two more, and so on… and so on…

    This could be a very cool feature in the book blogosphere.

  9. Ti says:

    Guess I can pass on this one.

    I am reading A Canticle for Leibowitz right now and it’s very interesting. Didn’t grab me right out of the gate but it’s pretty darn good. Feels very Gunslinger-ish to me.

  10. Margot says:

    This is not my favorite genre but I actually like your review of it. Maybe I’ve found my own niche here – enjoying the tale about the future weird worlds without having to read the gruesome stuff which causes nightmares.

    Seriously, for the first half of your review I was thinking not much is that different between now and 2150. So much of this behavior is already present in our society. Then I saw your insertedc comment about the animal behavior of college students and things not changing. I’m guessing you felt the same way throughout the book.

  11. I tried to read The Windup Girl too, and just could not finish it, the rare book I gave totally up on. not sure about this one…

  12. BermudaOnion says:

    If the plot is too complicated, it would probably be over my head. I’m not a huge fan of dystopia, so I probably won’t seek this book out.

  13. Jenny says:

    I often feel like plot summaries of dystopian books come off way heavy-handed-er than the books themselves actually end up being, but goodness, this premise sounds awfully heavy-handed. Is it? I would think even with most of the violence implied rather than depicted, it could still come off sort of anvilly.

  14. Does it explain the reason behind the whole “sex-teen” thing? How it came about, etc? I like explanations and details when it comes to these novels with a whole new society.

  15. Can I just say that the whole premise blew me away. I’m curious to read it….

  16. Jenners says:

    This just sounds horrible! I’m glad it wasn’t graphic but it just sounds so icky. And I too could fall in love so easily back in the day…but I never had to live in a dystopia where I might have to kill or be raped. I imagine it would be even easier…or necessary…to fall in love quickly in that kind of world.

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