XVI (XVI #1)
Speculative Young Adult
Available January 6th
Received from publisher for review
This review contains NO spoilers.
There's not much time left before Nina's sixteenth birthday. The day she'll get her tattoo on her wrist. The day her innocence is up for grabs and any man who wants to sleep with her has every right to do so under the rules and regulations of the Governing Council.
Most girls look forward to their birthdays, primping and preening in anticipation of attracting the attention of men, but Nina is terrified. Quicker than she can blink though, her life is filled with much more to worry about than turning sex-teen as her family is torn apart and secrets that change everything are revealed.
Nina's always been told the same story about her father's death years before, but in the wake of this new tragedy and a chance meeting with Sal, a young boy her age, she is forced her to question everything she's been told. With the help of her friends, Nina searches for answers and struggles with feelings for Sal that petrify her. She doesn't want to be a sex-teen, but her birthday is inching ever closer, as are all the ramifications it brings.
XVI allows us a fleeting glimpse of an extremely bleak and utterly disturbing future where the innocence of young women is a commodity, and the age at which they are deemed fair sexual game is regulated by the government itself. This world is one that has experienced extraordinary achievements in science and technology, but for every step forward and every advancement their humanity seems to have retreated, leaving behind a moral and ethical degradation so appalling there don't seem to be enough words to adequately describe it. In this world, rape isn't a crime as long as the XVI brand exists on young girls' wrists, a glaring symbol that advertises them as objects, bypasses the word "no" as a valid objection, and strips them of any rights over the use of their bodies. This world is intense, unfathomable, and repulsive, eliciting an acute reaction from us as we read on in horror and have to periodically retreat to the comfort of a reality where such depravity, though it surely exists, is at least punishable by law.
Nina is not your typical sex-teen, and unlike her best friend Sandy who blithely courts disaster with every bat of her eyelashes and flick of her hair, she is understandably fearful of her sixteenth birthday and the loss of sexual safety it represents. Like her mother and grandparents, she refuses to blindly capitulate to the media frenzy professing the merits of the XVI requirement, and instead thinks, questions, and effectively mutes the sensory barrage telling her to relinquish control over the most personal of acts with little more than a blush in her cheeks and a smile on her face. She is a character who has our full support – her loyalty to friends and family is admirable, her desire for change is infectious, and her strength of will is exceptional.
Though the world is gripping in it's darkness and Nina has the makings of a strong protagonist, the romantic aspect between her and Sal is not quite as compelling as the elements surrounding it. For all the intensity of her reality and the monstrous implications of her birthday, their interactions are rather bland and simple, seeming to pale in comparison against such a powerfully atrocious backdrop. Despite her overwhelming fear of being a sex-teen, Nina is hardly reticent when confronted with brief kisses and caresses from Sal, a surprising reaction considering the context of her world. There is nothing overly distinctive about Sal aside from his knowledge of her father, and their connection is one that could exist in any young adult novel, their sweetness and innocence, while enjoyable, not quite matching the complexity and seriousness of being sixteen in this reality. Though it's a secondary element to the mystery of the main storyline and therefore perhaps not meant to be as profound, their relationship just doesn't pulse with life and exhilaration, and where it could have been a guiding beacon to help Nina navigate the claustrophobic darkness of her fear, it remains simply average – a cute teenage love scenario instead of a memorably epic romance.
Overall, this is a disturbingly fascinating first installment with a well-developed world and intriguing characters, the most noteworthy of all being our villain. He is one so vile and disgusting we find our lips curling involuntarily at the mere visual of two little letters that comprise his name: Ed. The embodiment and physical manifestation of all the cruelties and injustices of this world, he inspires a hatred to burn in us that simmers long after we've finished this story, just as our recollection of this future reality is branded in our minds as real and lasting as Nina's own XVI marker.