Nina Oberon lives with her mom and sister outside of Chicago. Nina and her friend Sandy are about to turn 16, the year when they are made sexually available. Although Sandy is excited about the prospect of working for the government as a sex worker, Nina has been raised to not want that. After her mother is in an accident, Nina begins to see that her mother was involved in something big–and probably anti-government. Nina races to discover the truth about her father’s death and protect her half-sister Dee from Dee’s biological father, all while trying to avoid having to become a “sexteen.”
There have been quite a few dystopian YA novels coming out in the past couple of years. One that I thought was particularly good was Feed by M.T. Anderson. Each dystopia seems to grab onto a specific aspect of today’s world to showcase a scenario when things just go too far. For XVI, this is the sexualization of young girls by society. The government in this novel uses teen sex as a way to exert power over lower classes, and virginity becomes a bargaining chip. It’s hinted that there’s something very sinister going on to make this happen, but that was never entirely fleshed out. I kept wondering “why?” Why would there be such an emphasis on using 16 year old girls as sex workers? Why would a society allow this? Of course in this world, as in so many dystopias, the government is all powerful and can do pretty much whatever it wants, without accountability.
And just like many other dystopian novels, there is a secret underground organization determined to topple the oppressive government. Of course Nina manages to become ingratiated with this group. A lot of it seemed a little too easy: if you want to say things against the government, just pull out this thing that will scramble any transmission of what you say in your home. If you want to get out of something, just fake your own death and then live comfortably in the country. I think the strongest dystopian novels are those where you just can’t win. The final line in 1984 proves that a true dystopian government is all-powerful, and can manipulate anybody.
Something that irked me in XVI was the use of slang. It was meant to show that this is a different world, people call things differently in this society, etc., but all it did was jar me out of the story. The strangest example was what they call their transportation vehicles. There are no longer cars, but “trannies.” This was a really poor choice of terms, because when you say trannie I don’t automatically thing transportation, but something else. It sometimes made for unintentionally hilarious sentences. Another example was the term “‘verts” for advertisements. Why? We already shorten that term to “ads.” It felt inauthentic to hear them called ‘verts, as if there was a need for different vocabulary rather than it stemming organically from the characters’ world.
Overall, I think XVI was an average YA novel, and lacked force as dystopian fiction. The emphasis on the dangers of sex came across at points as overly preachy, and I never felt that there was all that much really at stake. I never doubted that Nina would find a happy ending. I think some teens will really enjoy this book, but I hope that they are interested enough by the mentions of other novels within the text to check some of those out too.