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.
Published by Puffin/Speak, 2011