Monday, February 14, 2011

REVIEW: XVI by Julia Karr

by Julia Karr
Released on 01.06.2011
325 pages
Source: Library


Nina Oberon's life is pretty normal: she hangs out with her best friend, Sandy, and their crew, goes to school, plays with her little sister, Dee. But Nina is 15. And like all girls she'll receive a Governing Council-ordered tattoo on her 16th birthday. XVI. Those three letters will be branded on her wrist, announcing to all the world—even the most predatory of men—that she is ready for sex. Considered easy prey by some, portrayed by the Media as sluts who ask for attacks, becoming a "sex-teen" is Nina's worst fear. That is, until right before her birthday, when Nina's mom is brutally attacked. With her dying breaths, she reveals to Nina a shocking truth about her past—one that destroys everything Nina thought she knew. Now, alone but for her sister, Nina must try to discover who she really is, all the while staying one step ahead of her mother's killer.

REVIEW: What kind of whack-job government requires sixteen year-old girls to get proof-of-age tats on their wrists that publicly announce they are ripe for the raping?  How does a society even get to that point?

To be fair, the synopsis warned me, but bravo to the author for managing to make my skin crawl anyway. 

Ug, and crawl it did, right from the beginning.  Sixteen year-old girls have zero rights in the year 2150.  Men openly leer at young girls and check out their wrists to see if they are legally available.  If an of-age girl is preyed upon, there basically is no legal recourse for her to take.  She is 16 or ‘sex-teen’ as the Media so cutely describes her, and was of victim of her own poor choices.  However, this is only one aspect of the future world that Julia Karr sets up for us.  Another defining point is a tiered level of citizenship, where being at level one makes you only a step above being homeless and being a level 10 gives you a cushy job and nice play to live.  How you are treated by hospitals, the Media, and your peers is determined by your level.  Other futuristic elements include hovering ttransportation vehicles, or ‘trannies'; points, which are used to buy food and goods rather than cash; ID chips, which citizens have implanted in their hands; and GPS tracking implants, which everyone has in an ear until age 16.

Karr does a great job of making this world plausible in her book, and that might have a lot to do with her characters.  Nina is believable from the beginning as care-taker of her physically abused mother and loving older sister to Dee.  Aside from her mother’s horrible boyfriend, what she is stressed most about is turning 16.  Her best friend, Sandy, is the boy-crazed ditz we all would love to smack (honestly, I don’t think I could take a real life Sandy).  Derek is a passionate musician with a mellow attitude, and Mike simply is a likable guy who isn’t a threat to anyone.  Add in new friend Wei (who is freaking rad, tough and very artistic) and love interest Sal, and you’ve got yourself a believable high school group of friends.

This was a decent book with an interesting premise.  However, my mind did wonder a few times, but the chapters were short and the story would quickly pick up again.  I think XVI probably could’ve been a shorter, more tightly written book.  It seems to have two major plots for Nina: 1) making sure she and her sister are safe (there are significant threats to them both); and 2) completing the final task her mother left her before she dies after being lethally attacked.  Besides that, there were many subplots, mostly to do with the drama one would expect within a high school crowd.  They seemed to mesh together relatively well and one flowed in and out of another, but at times it was a little difficult sorting through what was important.  The all-controlling government and Media invoked a sense of paranoia, but this wasn’t an overstretched aspect of the story; it simply was something the characters dealt with through a few different means.  Obviously, sex is a major topic in the book, and it was interesting to see how control over it could shape a one’s entire sense-of-self.  It is portrayed by different people as a choice, a commodity, a right-of-passage, a means to a better future and, of course, as rape.  There are never graphic, detailed descriptions of sex or rape, although the few occurrences of leering men and the references to rape will make you cringe.  I don’t think it was overly done, however, and it really does make you aware of how it must be for Nina and other girls who have to live this way.  Given the synopsis, the reader is fairly warned.  Thankfully, Nina is a particularly self-aware character who was raised by a mother determined to make sure Nina was as free from sexual threats as possible once she turned 16.  However, Nina fears men and sex regardless, and her views on her own choices are heavily influenced by her mother’s relationship with her violent, disgusting, foul miscreant of a boyfriend.  Seeing her work through these fears is one of the more significant subplots of the book. 

XVI had a lot of interesting elements going for it, but it also left some things unexplained.  I would’ve loved having more background on the following:

***It’s never explained how or why the U.S. disintegrated and/or was overtaken.  Several different groups seemed to have had control between now and when the book takes place, but I could have used some more concrete background information.  I am one of those people who needs the narrative of the past to help me define the present.

***Why the 10-tier system?  That’s a whole lot of tiers and some big time micro-managing.  I would’ve have liked to know what defined the different tiers.  We do learn that occupation defines status to a certain extent, but so does whom one marries.

***Although girls get tattooed at 16, boys don’t until 18.  I definitely did not get the impression that this was the green light to adult women that the lads could be carnally feasted upon, so I am not sure of the significance.  

***More on the NonCons (which I assume means ‘non-conformists’ - duh).  How did the resistance start?  What do they do to combat the government?  It seems to be more a group of people who simply live under the radar, but there is little concrete action taken by them in the book.

XVI ends on an interesting, hopeful note.  However, I still wanted answers to my questions and visited Karr’s website to see if I could find any there.  It turns out that she currently is writing a sequel called The Sisterhood, which I look forward to reading, especially if it contains more of Wei and gives additional background to XVI.  Although the writing could have been tighter, this was a decent debut by a new YA voice.  You have to have a stomach for the issues it deals with, but for those who do, I think this will be an interesting read.  Karr wrote believable characters, an easily imaginable setting, and an interesting plot.  For me, these are the most important things in a story, and I likely will be back to see what happens to Nina & Co. 

Bonus: besides the sequel, Karr is also writing a spin-off story called Cinderella Girl – you have to read XVI to know what that is, but I will tell you that this is the fate that Nina was trying to protect Dee from.  You can also read the first chapter of XVI there.


“Out of nowhere, I started crying again.  He pulled me close to him and held me. I’d never felt so confused, happy, scared and safe in my whole life.  For the first time, the fears that had ruled my life faded to the background, and I felt calmer, lighter.  I’d knew they’d come back, but at least I’d had a taste of freedom.  I sank into it like it was a fluffy white cloud on a summer’s day.”
-Nina, page 120

“‘The government tags you with a GPS and then brands you like you’re nothing more than property.  Doesn’t that make you mad, Nina?’  He raised his eyebrows and stared at me. ‘GPSs don’t keep girls safe – a GPS is called, knowing where everyone is all the time.  A tattoo doesn’t make you an adult.  And no tattoo is going to save you in some dark alley; just the opposite, you’d be considered fair game.  The only information anyone gets is from Media.  Haven’t you ever wondered what goes on in places where Media cameras aren’t there?  Do you really think life is as great as the Governing Council says it is?’

I couldn’t stand the way Sal was looking at me like I was an idiot.”
-Sal talking to Nina, pages 140-141

“She was right.  Girls like us didn’t have choices.  We were either super smart or artistic and got scholarships so we could enter a profession, or we ended stuck in the kind of life we grew up in.”
-Nina, page 226


  1. Awesome review. I really want to read this. The premise sounds interesting and sounds like a thought provoking novel.

    I didn't know it was a series so thanks for the heads up.

  2. Really thorough review! I have this sitting in my tbr pile it's close to the top. I can't wait to read it. The premise just really draws me in.


  3. Awesome, thoughtful review, Linds! I've been pondering about this book a lot lately, and I hear it's super gritty, which you seem to agree with. Despite the elements it lacks, it sounds promising, and I like books that make me cringe sometimes because at least I'm feeling something!

  4. Beautiful review Linds, I so enjoyed reading it since I remember this book so vividly and understood everything you were saying! I thought the world was really well done and absolutely cringe-inducing (in an intentional way), but I just wanted more from Nina and Sol, they're interactions just didn't seem all that genuine. I'm definitely looking forward to book two, and hopefully we find out about the 18 mark on boys' wrists as that was of interest to me too!

  5. This is a great review. I like that you pointed out your problems with the plot. Ten tiers really is a lot! Little things like you mentioned in the world building can really turn me off to a dystopian. I'm very picky :)

  6. Holy Moley- that review was awesome!!

    I have this on my TBR and sounds like it will be a great dystopian for 2011 if the world building does not mess it up...:)

  7. Hi Everyone - glad you liked the review!

    @Nic - I had no idea either until I looked up the author and found her website. It could've been a stand alone, but I am happy that there will be a sequel - there are things that happen that I don't want to give away, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it all ends up.

    @Heather - ohh, the premise is creepy, right?!? Could you imagine have to be a girl in that?

    @Melissa - definitely gritty, but the setting feels familiar. The writing does need a little work, but I think it's a good start, and enough to make me want to pick up the sequel.

    @Sal - I could use some more Sal, too! I like them together - he seemed older than a high school student, didn't he? Got a lil Alpha male at times, too ;)

    @SR - hehe, I picked that up from your blog and comments ;) try out the first chapter at Karr's website - you never know!

    @Tina - the world building isn't the issue so much as the many subplots and Nina reflects a lot. I liked it. I think it's a good review.


  8. You really sum this up nicely, and make me extra antsy to read it. I love dystopians, but I do like to have some backstory so we understand how things got to that point. Otherwise, it makes any resistance efforts less meaningful in my mind.

  9. That has been my problem with dysopian lately. A lot that is coming out lately doesn't seem entirely plausible, but hey, what do I know.

    I'm glad you think it was here, thought it seems like there was a lot left unexplained and that kind of irks me for some reason, but I'm still looking forward to read this one.

    Love your reviews Linds. I can feel your frustrations and your excitements in every word.

  10. Excellent review! I have this one in my TBR pile waiting to be reviewed and can't wait to start reading it now.

    I just realized that I haven't been getting any feeds from you for the past couple of months which is why I thought you haven't been blogging lately, and yet I'm a follower. Do you think there's a glitch?

  11. Those are great questions about the book. l totally agree about all the questions left by this book and l think that's why l didn't love it as much as l thought l would (still loved it a lot!!)
    I bet Cinderella Girl will be good! As well as the second one, didn't know this was being wrote.

  12. BTW, l just seen A Canadian Girl comment, l don't get feeds either from you .. it says l have to click on your site and gives me the link but your posts don't go into my feed