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Review: XVI by Julia Karr

I’m having trouble beginning this review. I feel like I should give the author just a little bit of credit. This book was (I am presuming) intended to be a deconstruction of our culture’s attitude towards female sexuality. And I appreciate that. But, with the greatest respect … OH MY GOD WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.

The story takes place in the year 2150; not a massive leap into the future, but apparently far enough that humans have colonized the moon and other planets, have started to use bloody annoying slang, and … there was something else, what was it..? Oh yes, society’s attitudes towards feminism, religion and equal rights have taken a complete turn for the worse.

In the world of XVI, when teenagers turn sixteen they get an XVI tattoo on their wrist to signal to the world that they are adults now. That doesn’t mean they can live on their own, drink legally, or most of the things we associate with adulthood; it means they are essentially fair game. Sixteen-year-olds, or “sex-teens” as they are oh-so-affectionately called, are expected to have lots and lots of rampant sex, and are typically portrayed as wild sex-fiends.

“Everyone knows what’s expected of a girl when she turns sixteen. They don’t call it “sex-teen” for nothing. We’re all supposed to be excited about sex and willing to do whatever with practically any guy who asks”

Our protagonist Nina is one of the rare sunflowers who wants to remain virginal (read: pure) after she turns sixteen. Oh sorry, “sex-teen”. This is where our author’s very strong opinions come screaming in: not only does she constantly slut-shame women but she pulls a double whammy and portrays the vast majority of men as rapey sex-pests.

Well, shit.

It’s a bold move, for sure. But wait, it gets worse.

Not only are all men sex-pests, but it’s also common practice for men to make slaves, even prostitutes, of their illegitimate daughters. If a girl/woman gets pregnant, men decide whether or not she will have an abortion, and you know what else is a thing: “sex-teens” being drafted to become Female Liaison Specialists (FeLS), which is a government sex-trade ring.

Now, I think I see what we’re trying to do here – maybe some inspiration has been drawn from The Handmaid’s Tale? The trouble is, if you’re going to create a dystopia where our Western society has completely devolved, you need to explain how we got there. I can’t willingly suspend my disbelief if you give me nothing to work with, Julia Karr. I know shit is still grim in the 21st century, especially in the US, but I have immense difficulty believing such an extreme semi-Gilead society like that would ever exist in our future. The Handmaid’s Tale works so well because it draws on real-world examples of female inequality happening today, and gives the reader adequate backstory on how Gilead came to be. But the world of XVI just doesn’t achieve the same effect.

Without any world-building, without any plausible explanation, I cannot sign on to this world. I cannot believe that in 100 years, every single man in futuristic America will become nothing but a sex-pest, with no regard for women at all. Goddamn it, we will not get to the point where women have to fight not to be raped on their way to their work at the brothel each morning!

“What was I going to do when I had my tattoo? It wasn’t going to be easy turning down guys who thought the tattoo was a free pass. And I wasn’t some martial arts expert like Wei.”

It’s not just the sex thing either, I have a problem with the way religion is handled in this book, too. In XVI, religion is out-of-fashion and the government was actually banned the church from imposing any beliefs on others or preaching in the media, saying it “could be used to sow discontent and incite rioting”. And everyone just … is fine with that. Again, I have to ask, how?!

I don’t believe you. Give us an explanationReligious establishments have unfathomable power. I cannot easily envisage a world where the government has managed to completely own religion’s ass. I could be naïve, it could be entirely plausible, but Julia Karr you need to bloody well explain your logic because I cannot fucking see it.

“After everything I’d read about the Religion Wars, it was easy to understand how people would accept the GC’s edict.”

IS IT REALLY? For thousands of years humanity has raged wars in the name of God. Yes, it’s fucking awful. But why, oh so suddenly, has everyone decided, “oh yeah, religion does cause a lot of shit. Let us accept the inevitable closure of our church and relinquish the immense power we have held for centuries.”

And you know the best part of all this completely unbelievable and unexplained not-really-trying world-building? MC Nina spends almost the entire book oblivious to the world’s problems just like the rest of humanity. It kind of reminded me of Wall-e in a way, where we see surviving humans in deep space living on a fully automated space ship engulfed in the millions of adverts surrounding them, blind to the reality that’s behind them.

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“Sandy and I talked via our PAVs so we could hear ourselves over the verts. We were plotting out the day’s events when there was a loud bang, followed by two more. Three trannies had slammed into each other right in the middle of the street. All the other traffic stopped. We clicked off our PAVs. Not one vert was blaring. There was total silence. Which was more jarring than the crash of the accident.”

This scene is right out of Wall-e and, yes, that’s a whole bunch of annoying slang right there. The technology it’s referring to isn’t even as creative as Wall-e, just re-vamped stuff we already have: PAV (Personal Audio/Video) is the in-ear Bluetooth. Verts are adverts, because shortening the term to ‘ads’ is just uncool in Granite Middle School, Cementville. I shit you not, that is where they live. Oh and guess what they call transportation? Trannies.

I don’t know why Julia Karr thought using a modern-day slur out of context in her book was a good idea. Probably for mature and sensitive sentences like these:

“Are you coming into town? I told him you really like trannies, too.”

“When the hire-trannie rounded the corner, I grabbed Sandy and held her tight.”

“You know, Sal’s cool. He likes music and his brother has all those great trannies.”

“While I waited, a trannie with a couple of guys inside stopped at the light.”

Do I need to say any more about this shit novel? Have I warded you away?  Did I mention the virginal, slut-shaming protagonist whose Bechdel-test failing BFF Sandy gets raped and murdered after being villainized for 300+ pages because she wears skirts and wants to lose her virginity? Did I also mention that Nina gets a boyfriend, and urges, and ultimately accepts that it’s okay to have sex when she’s good and ready? I mean the hypocrisy is unreal here. It would be one thing if Sandy was dressing provocatively and obsessing over sex if she felt compelled to by society. But this is never mentioned. No matter what role society and the media may have played in her decision-making process, Sandy comes across entirely as a teenager who is self-assured, confident in her sexuality and ready to have sex. So why is she slut-shamed? If Nina can have sex when she’s ready, why the fuck can’t Sandy?

What is this book even about? What message is it trying to send? I don’t know what the author was intending, but it reads like they look down on women who have a fair bit of sex, and it really sounds like they endorse the “she was asking to be raped” philosophy. And to anyone who thinks like that, I sincerely say,

Um … don’t pick this one up, folks.

 



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