XVI by Julia Karr

In XVI, author Julia Karr creates a dystopian future familiar to those of us who have read 1984 or Feed (and countless other books I won’t name for the sake of brevity). In Karr’s future, the government has become big brother, although it is not referred to with those words. The Governing Council keeps track of all minors (those under 16) using a GPS chip embedded beneath the skin, keeps poor people off the street by forcing them to take part in medical testing, and gives girls from lower tiers (think socio-economic classes, but more rigidly defined) the opportunity to advance themselves by applying for the FeLS (Female Liaison Specialist) service.

The Governing Council goes hand in hand with the Media. The Media is ubiquitous, even more so than in our own world. Advertisements blare out of every single shop and are broadcast without pause on all public transit. People – and not just the young – are plugged in constantly to their PAVs (personal audio/video), whether they are home, at work, or out in public. The Media tells people, particularly young girls, how to behave – how to dress, how to flip your hair flirtatiously, how to act once hitting the age of majority.

Which brings us to the title. When girls turn sixteen, they are required by law to receive a tattoo on their wrists that reads “XVI.” This indicates that they’ve reached the legal age of sixteen and can now consent to sex. The Governing Council argues that this helps protect underage girls from unwanted sexual advances. You can imagine the effect it really has. I was initially put off by this aspect, since it seems so unpleasant and so very obviously a Statement About Our World Today. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is a small part of the story, despite the fact that it’s the only thing the book jacket discusses. It’s more of a background feature that helps to set the stage rather than the main plot thread.

Living in this world is our protagonist, Nina Oberon. She’s about to turn sixteen and is dreading the tattoo and all it represents. She lives with her mother and her half-sister, Dee, in Chicago. Then something terrible happens (fairly early on, but I won’t spoil you), and Nina learns that her parents (including her long-dead father) were part of an underground resistance group fighting back against the oppressive Governing Council and the omnipresent Media. This puts her and her sister in a dangerous position. Luckily, she has support in the form of a few good friends, a rather cute boy, and her grandparents. But the Governing Council is not going to leave Nina and her friends and family alone. What’s more, there’s the mystery of FeLS and what really goes on there to discover.

I really liked the world that Karr created. (Well, I didn’t really like it, but you know what I mean.) I like that she included some slang, and I also appreciate that she didn’t go overboard with it. I like that she included a lot of little details that really helped me to visualize the future world. The tiers, FeLS, Media, Moon Settlement Day, and so on worked together to make the world more complex, believable, and interesting than many I’ve come across in other recent dystopias.  I also really appreciated that she didn’t write down to the reader.  It’s initially a little confusing to decipher what all the unfamiliar words and acronyms mean, but Karr gives us the necessary information through context.  This is preferable to paragraph-length asides that tell, rather than show, the details of the world.  Lastly, I liked the characters, which were fairly distinct from each other and behaved in mostly believable ways throughout.

There were a few things that bothered me about XVI. The writing is mostly smooth, but there were a few clumsy passages and odd word choices. For example, cars and other modes of transportation are referred to as “trannies” – short for transits. This would make anyone do a double-take on first read.

There’s also a few worrying passages that veer pretty close to victim-blaming. Due to the XVI tattoo and other social ills, sexual violence is pretty common. Nina’s best friend Sandy has bought into the Media culture and likes to wear super revealing clothing and flirt up a storm. This leads Nina’s grandparents to remark to her “Does your mother know you’re wearing that? It’s too revealing. It’s not safe…dressing like that gives boys the impression that you don’t want to be [a virgin].” It’s not exactly “She’s asking for it,” but it’s close enough to make me uncomfortable.

Nina occasionally makes some dumb decisions that seem out of sync with her character but work well to drive the plot. On more than one occasion, Nina goes out alone when she knows that some very bad people are after her. I understand that the plot needs to be driven, particularly in a story like this, but it seemed disingenuous to make Nina’s stupidity the vehicle. Other than these blips, she seems to be a pretty intelligent girl.

Karr pulls no punches when it comes to the ending. It wraps up the main storyline – all of it – and only leaves a few minor threads dangling. In other words, I don’t mind that there’s a sequel in the works. I look forward to learning more about the world, in particular how the tier system works and what happens to Nina and the resistance after that killer ending. But I reiterate, the major threads were all resolved. I’m so grateful to Karr for this and wish more books took this approach.

Copy obtained from the public library.

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  1. says

    I've been looking forward to this one and have seen mixed reviews on it. It seems to fall in that love it or hate it category. I'm glad to see that you fell kind of in the middle it encourages me to read it as opposed to putting it aside.

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