03 June 2011

Your third grade teacher was right, you WILL use Roman numerals when you grow up.

XVI by Julia Karr (January 6, 2011, Speak)
Review by Kenzie Helene

When I heard about XVI by Julia Karr, I was immediately entranced. Not only was it my favorite genre, dysptopia, but it also was a product from my favorite literary agent. I waited for months, ordering the book right after midnight when it came out earlier this year.

In retrospect, I spent too much time hyping myself up. It had been compared to The Hunger Games, so I was expecting a novel of high caliber. I found fault in the description on the back, telling readers that it was about a girl turning sixteen and being labeled as ready for sexual experience. I immediately felt scared for the main character. Was it dangerous to turn sixteen? Had the blurb been more specific that it was the year leading up to her sixteenth, or that it was the beginning of a series, I would have been much more prepared for reading the novel. While I regard XVI as a good book, I did not feel as if it held up to the pre-release excitement I had about it.

XVI is about Nina, a fifteen year old, who is afraid of turning sixteen. In the future presented, girls are forced to get a tattoo that labels them sexually mature and legal to partake in intercourse. Nina is part of the lower class and the only way to get out is through a program called FeLS. However, her mother has warned her that the program is corrupt and to never get involved. When Nina’s mother dies, hidden plots involving her start to arise, making Nina fretful about her safety and her upcoming birthday.

In my opinion, one of the main aspects a dystopic book has to contain is characters from the opposing side. This part is usually made better when those characters are close to the protagonist, creating hard decisions and altering choices for the plot. I had trouble figuring out what was really pressuring Nina, though, as her family and friends supported her choices. Normally, this would create a character who is self-assured and finds it easy to follow the path that she has chosen. Instead, Nina feels pressure from the media, which is shallow, but many sixteen year olds can relate to. Who wants to be labeled that they’re ready for sex whether or not they actually are? Her character is very determined to go against the ideas that the society is trying to encourage, but all of the people surrounding her are also going against them as well. Only one of her friends, Sandy, bought into the government’s view on sex that the media presented, and if there were more characters like Sandy, I would have felt more sympathetic towards Nina and her plight.

XVI brings up the current issue with the media influencing young girls to have sex, like they do in the novel. Only, the book came across like it was written with the moral in mind, instead of written with the great plot in mind and allowed the moral to come through that way, so it didn’t seem forced.

There were a few plot points intended for the reader to connect with Nina that fell a little flat, especially with Julia’s great writing. Since I felt Nina’s character was written so strongly, her lackluster reactions were uncharacteristic and needed just a pinch of more feeling to get the reader to hang onto every word.

The novel also heavily revolved around Nina turning sixteen, but she did not have her birthday until the very end of the book. This annoyed me as a reader. A lot of the major plot developments were also hit upon briefly early on, but forgotten about until needed later on. XVI reads more like an extended background needed for a sequel, one that could hopefully have a faster pace and get the reader more involved with Nina's life now that she is sixteen. XVI put all of these interesting questions and plot leads out there, but barely solved any of them by the end of the book.

Julia’s writing was easy to read. The simplicity of it made it easy to sit and get into the book without having to go through and try to figure out what awkward sentences were trying to say. Even if it wasn't at a plot point, the language kept the novel paced well, encouraging the reader to keep turning the page.

The first person narrative made it easy to like Nina, and her personality came through on every page. Her tone seemed almost conversational and her thoughts were relatable to me and a lot of teenagers out there. She is a determined female character and very strong, but has enough personality flaws to be realistic. Every girl worries about sex, and when they’ll be ready to have it. Being marked as ready is, frankly, annoying. I, and Nina, refuse to let anyone tell me when I am ready to do something or not. Sex is a personal decision, and I applaud Julia for commenting on such a tough topic to teenage girls. As her first book, she definitely created a new, different dystopian world. With this book, she set herself up perfectly to create a stunning second novel that I am excited to read.

The problems I faced did not ruin the book entirely, but just made it underwhelming, when the intriguing idea behind XVI could have been made into something completely new and different. I still believe that Truth, the sequel, will take the leads that XVI has provided and create something great with them. Despite the flaws in this book, I still want to know how Nina's life turns out for her sixteenth year. I still wonder about her and her boyfriend. No book that makes you wonder is a bad book.

All of that being said, I appreciated the novel as a whole. I read it in one sitting and it was not painful to do so, which is rare. I know, though, that the sequel will show more of the great potential that Julia has as a writer.

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