Julia Karr has penned a novel strikingly relevant to our own time, intertwining the media influence and commercial culture with concerns about the exploitation of teenage sexuality. XVI is incredibly easy to read. Unlike some overwrought writing, Karr's prose does not get in the way of her story. Likewise, the world-building is subtle and unobtrusive. Many dystopian novels fixate on the brave new world, and not the people in it -- but XVI is Nina's story, first and foremost, while the futuristic and dystopic elements are blended seamlessly into the backdrop. Many things about the world just don't add up for Nina, and she's determined to find out why. At the heart of her story lies a secret with earth-shattering ramifications, and she struggles to unravel the rich backstory, adding depth and complexity to the mystery.
Nina is a beautifully written character. She doesn't have to work for readers' affection -- they will instantly fall in love with her girl-next-door charm and familiarity. Nina is tough and vulnerable, unusual and still just a normal girl. She's resourceful in a crisis and isn't afraid to question the world in which she lives. It's exciting to see a heroine who's already a bit of a rebel, without needing an outsider (read: boy) to show her the light. However, there is a hero in Nina's story, and their relationship is the only real problem with the narrative. Considering the sex-teen society in which she lives, Nina's qualms about the opposite sex seem natural. However, her sudden romance with Sal undermines the delicate issues that haunt Nina from the start. I would have liked to see this crucial element treated more deeply, in order to believe in their relationship.
Though Nina shines, her friends fall a little flat. Sandy seems to be a stereotype of the society, and Mike and Derek fill archetypal roles. However, Nina's new friend Wei is a force to be reckoned with. Wei, like Nina, has her doubts about society and she's not afraid to fight back -- disguising her "XVI" tattoo and learning martial arts to defend against the many licentious men roaming the streets. Additionally, Nina's family is richly written -- it is easy to see where she gets her charisma. Her grandparents are real and wonderful people, and her mom clearly loves her daughters though she harbors deadly secrets. The relationship between Nina and her little sister Dee is one of the most touching aspects of the novel. Nina's motherly love and care for Dee is tangible, and her willingness to make sacrifices for her gives Nina an air of nobility that melds perfectly with the rest of her character.
XVI moves at a brisk pace, keeping readers' minds awhirl to solve the troubling puzzle that drives the story. The solution is only partially revealed in this first installment, and raises almost as many questions as it answers -- raising the stakes for the upcoming sequel, Truth.
Click here to purchase XVI by Julia Karr.
You can also read my author interview with Julia Karr!