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This is the sequel to XVI, the infamous Sexteen. I tried to keep an open mind about the sequel. Honest. However, two pages in, I realized that liveblogging it would do a better job of capturing the reading experience than a normal review.

Page 1: Hey! This one actually begins with a concise and clear explanation of the XVI tattoo: Given to girls only at the age of 16, wears off in about sex six years, means that they’re legally available for sex. Does not legally mean that they can be raped with impunity, but in practice it works out for that. Good job. Seriously. Book one never explained it clearly.

Page 5: B.O.S.S. as the acronym for the evil government agency will never not sound like something out of Get Smart.

Page 8: “John’s got an appointment with the big trannie dealership in Evanston, so I have the afternoon free.”

The plot so far: Nina has quit school to work for the Art Institute. She’s dating Sal, who spends most of his time disguised as a homeless person to cover his NonCon (revolutionary) activities. (I can never not read NonCon as “nonconsensual.”) Sal is showing signs of being a creepy, stalkery control freak. Nina and her little sister Dee are living with Pops (her disabled and mentally fading grandfather) and Gran. Her revolutionary father, Alan Oberon, is out there somewhere. B.O.S.S. doesn’t know that Nina killed Ed, the evil B.O.S.S agent who murdered her mother.

The Resistance is sexist and doesn’t let girls do anything dangerous, but there are still girl Resistance members. Wei, Nina’s high-tier friend, will induct Nina into the Sisterhood.

Page 30. Slang of the future: “Skivs! Dee’s been waiting!”

Page 31. Slang of the future, Part II: “Zats! Nina, you look awful!”

Page 42: Slang of the future, Part III: “Welfs” for “welfare recipients” joins “verts” for advertisements and “digi” for digitize in a further demonstration that good invented slang needs to consist of more than just abbreviating words.

Pops has been taken away by evil government ops, and Gran has a heart attack, then is confiscated for an experimental procedure done by the creepy Dr. Silverman. Dee and Nina are evicted, and go to live in Wei’s ultra (cool) home.

94. Wow! A teenage interracial lesbian couple pops up! Good for Karr, seriously. Even if this brief mention is the last we see of them, they are the first lesbians I have spotted in any teen dystopia. More props if they both survive till the end of the book. (If the brown-skinned one dies, a prop will be withdrawn.) They are part of the Sisterhood.

117. Nina gets carried away and almost has sex with Sal. He takes her no for an answer, protesting, “I’m not a sexer.” Despite the idiotic slang, this is the best part of the book so far, as Nina struggles with real and complicated questions about love, sex, and how to tell the difference between her impulse to rebel against society by refusing to have sex, and genuinely not wanting to or not being ready.

149. “Here’s a free hire trannie ticket.”

168. Classic moment of unintentional comedy: Nina’s Dad makes a daring illegal interruption of the constant stream of verts to broadcast subversive propaganda! The content of the subversive propaganda? “Once upon a time, Holiday meant more than a buying frenzy. It was a time for family and friends and compassion for the less fortunate.”

168. A trannie spun out of an alley, nearly knocking me over.

171. There should be a ban on the scene, which I swear I have read about a billion times, in which, hundreds of years in the future, the classic baby boomer musicians are enthusiastically praised by hip future teens as world-changing and superior to modern pap. I love Bob Dylan and Joan Baez too, but come on!

188. The inevitable appearance of the love triangle. Chris, Wei’s brother, treats Nina as an equal, unlike the possessive, over-protective Sal. Nina points out to him that she can take risks just like a boy, and that murder is not gender-specific. I wonder if Karr got criticized for all the victim-blaming in book one? This one has way less of that, and some actual discussion about victim-blaming. Again, seriously, good for her.

This was a big improvement on the first book in the sense of being less politically objectionable, and less hilariously bad. The points Karr seems to be trying to make are more supported by the actual text, so it doesn’t constantly switch back and forth from lectures about the evils of sexism to in-text virgin-whore dichotomies. I was also surprised and pleased that the lesbians survived – even the brown-skinned one!

That being said, The Truth is mediocre. The plot is aimless, many of the supporting characters are blank slates, and I didn’t care what happened to anyone. Sal randomly vanishes about two-thirds of the way through the book, apparently just so that Nina can get some quality time with his rival, and it’s explained in an epilogue that he’d been off on a mission. There are a lot of loose threads, which may be tied up in the presumably forthcoming sequel. I don’t feel moved to seek it out.

The Truth
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( May. 31st, 2011 07:50 am)
I would never be a crazed sex-teen!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls: If you have sex with boys, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude, a lesbian, or a reject. If you dress fashionably, you’re a slut. If you dress conservatively, you’re a prude. If you really are a lesbian, you don’t exist, unless you proclaim your identity, in which case you’re shoving your sexuality on innocent heterosexual victims. If you use contraception, you’re a slut. If you don’t and you get pregnant, you’re a stupid bitch who’s ruining society.

XVI was clearly inspired by some of those messages, but it’s not good. Its problems begin with the phrase that undoubtedly sold the book, “sex-teen.” That is an inherently ridiculous word. It might work in a satire, but in a work intended to be serious, it can only produce unintentional comedy. Luckily for me, the book had lots of that.

Meet Nina, the heroine. Ginnie is her idolized mom, and Sandy is her sex-crazy “best friend.” The quote marks are because… well, judge for yourself:

Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

[…]

Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.

[…]

Sandy’s Saturn blue plether pants were so tight there was no way she could have gotten them on over underwear – and it was obvious she hadn’t. […] The outfit made me cringe. I sincerely hoped the Sandy I knew and loved was under the Media-hyped crap she was wearing.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Here’s Nina again, rescuing an apparently homeless person and being more compassionate than anyone ever:

I should have gone. Anyone else would have left him. […] It seemed like the older I got the more I believed that everyone, homeless or not, deserved to be treated at least like a human.

Her friends, of course, are baffled and horrified that she would help a homeless person. But it turns out that he’s actually upper-class and only dresses like he’s homeless so he can sneak around being rebellious, so he is acceptable boyfriend material for Nina. (There is an official ten-tier class structure.) While Nina is currently low-class, she came from a high class and her mother voluntarily demoted herself for political reasons. All the sympathetic characters in the book are high-class or formerly high-class. Only Sandy the wannabe-slut is genuinely low-class.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I plunge into the plot, here’s the background:

Girls who turn sixteen are tattooed with the number XVI and called sex-teens. They are then legally able to have sex. I think that while they aren’t legally required to have sex on demand, they are assumed to be sex-crazy and so they are treated as fair game, and while they could theoretically press charges if they’re raped, those cases will invariably be dismissed. But it’s not very clear. They may or may not also become legal adults in other ways.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age. I also have no idea why the government was so obsessed with making sixteen-year-old girls available for sex, especially since it turns out that the government also collects sixteen-year-old virgins. Given how central the sex-teen concept is, it’s oddly under-explained.

While modern teenage girls are also under a lot of pressure to have sex, may be called sluts, and can often be raped with impunity, there’s no enormous mystique about how since eighteen is the legal age to have sex, you can only have sex once you turn eighteen and absolutely have to have sex the instant you turn eighteen OMG. If a modern girl under eighteen wants to have sex, she… has sex. Since the XVI society doesn’t strictly penalize underage sex, I don’t buy the way that everyone acts like no one ever has sex before sixteen, and everyone must have it the instant they turn sixteen.

Don’t ask me what the ramifications are for non-heterosexual girls. Only straight sexuality exists in this world. (Only straight sexuality exists in all of the recent teen dystopias I’ve read, but it’s a particularly weird omission for the one which is entirely about teen sex.)

In further implausibilities, there’s an organization called FeLS, which I kept reading as FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), a diplomatic corps made up entirely of low-class virgin teenage girls. All sixteen-year-old low-class virgin girls must be available to be selected for it, unless they can buy their way out. Almost none of them ever come back even though the term of service is only two years, but nonetheless it’s supposed to be wonderful and glamorous and all the sixteen-year-olds who are still virgins are dying to become part of it.

I have no idea how the virginity test works, other than that it’s “physical.” I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing. The hymen can be broken in other ways. Some hymens stretch rather than breaking. More significantly, and as I believe most modern American girls know, you can have oral, anal, manual, and intercrural sex without damaging the hymen. (Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.) So the virginity test is meaningless. They’d be better off borrowing King Math's magic broomstick from the Mabinogion and having the girls step over it to see if a baby falls out of them.

The utterly non-shocking twist at the end is that FeLS is actually a sex slavery ring run by and for the government. When Nina finds this out, and her “friend” Sandy is about to join FeLS, Nina tells Sandy what’s really going on so Sandy can make her own informed decision.

Just kidding! Like that would ever happen. Nina actually decides to make sure Sandy fails the physical virginity test by giving her a large, vibrating, brand-name, sparkly pink dildo, the “Sex-teen Sizzler,” which she knows Sandy will be unable to resist.

Nope, kidding again! This is not a book in which girls enjoy their sexuality without men around. What really happens is that Nina doesn’t tell Sandy anything, but decides to get her to have sex with a boy so she’ll fail the virginity test. Cue ridiculous angsting over whether Nina should offer Sandy her own boyfriend for this purpose.

Nina, of course, never has sex, and her boyfriend doesn’t want to have sex either. Her actual best friend, Wei, is sex-teen but still a virgin. All the positively portrayed teens want to stay virgins, while the only teenager who wants to have sex, Sandy, is a dumb slut.

There is a hint of a promising story in this mess of a book, which is that Nina has good reasons to hate and fear the thought of sex and romantic relationships – her mother is in an abusive relationship – and that creates a conflict between her increasingly undeniable sexual impulses, and her desire to both stay safe and rebel against social expectations by avoiding sex and romance.

Unfortunately, all that consists of about fifteen pages total. The rest of the book is taken up by a largely nonsensical mystery plot. Ginnie, Nina’s mom, is murdered, and with her dying breath tells Nina that her supposedly dead father is still alive. Nina and her younger sister Dee, who was fathered by the abusive Ed, are sent to live with their grandparents.

(Ed is a member of another evil government agency, B.O.S.S. I am not kidding. I immediately guessed that Ed killed Ginnie (no else is even presented as a plausible suspect), that he’s not really Dee’s father, and that the only reason Ginnie was with Ed was some idiotic revolutionary plan, because an intelligent woman would never stay in an abusive relationship unless she had a master plan that requires it. Right on all counts!)

At her new home, Nina learns that not only was the “homeless” boy she rescued coincidentally the son of one of the revolutionaries her father was involved with, but the only girl she befriends from her new apartment building is coincidentally the daughter of some more of them. This conveniently allows other people to step in periodically and give Nina bits of information, a little at a time, even though there are at least four people who could have told Nina the entire story at any time.

But aimless plotting, incoherent worldbuilding, an unlikable heroine, clunky prose, and preachiness is not all that’s wrong with this book. There is also the very, very bad decision to attempt future slang by calling vehicles “trannies.” Not only is it a real-life pejorative term, but just picture the mental image I got every time there was a line like, A trannie came out of nowhere, nearly knocking me down. Not to mention lines of dialogue like, “I told him you really like trannies,” “Girly trannie,” and “Sal’s cool. His brother has all those great trannies.”

I also laughed at every use of the word “sex-teen.” Never not funny!

But what bugged me the most were the anti-sex, anti-female desire, and anti-sexy clothing messages, mostly directed at poor authorial punching bag Sandy. Nina is constantly obsessing about the slutty way Sandy dresses and how it will tempt men to rape her. Here’s Gran on the same topic: “Why, two years ago she was as sweet and innocent as can be. Now she’s on the verge of becoming a wild sex-teen!”

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end. At the casket, Nina muses, For all her sex-teen ways, she’d been so naïve and trusting. Victim-blaming to the very literal end!

Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. And there are many terrible aspects I didn’t even mention. Other intrepid readers, should any step up to the plate, will find unspoiled depths of awfulness to plumb.

Scariest of all, judging by the lack of closure to several major plot points, there will probably be a sequel or two. I eagerly anticipate XVII (Semen-teen), and the conclusion, XVIII (Ate-teen).

Thank you very much to the sponsors who made this post happen! If you enjoyed reading this review, please consider making a donation to the organization this review was written to benefit, The Virginia Avenue Project. ("Using the arts to help kids discover their full potential! 100% of Project kids graduate from high school. 95% go to college. 98% are the first in their families to do so!"

If you do donate, feel free to say that Rachel Manija Brown sent you. Please don't say, "I'm here because of sex-teen!" Given the nature of the Project, that could cause some unfortunate confusion. ;)

XVI
I love my Kindle. And I love being able to download the first chapter or few as a free sample. I’ve bought several books I otherwise might not have taken a chance on, based on the quality of the first few chapters, and been warned off others. (Best purchase based on sample chapter so far: Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Warning: dark. Further warning: get the print edition. The e-book has annoying formatting errors.)

For your amusement, I’m going to write up a couple recent Kindle samples I downloaded while recovering from food poisoning. They are all YA sff and mostly dystopian, partly because there’s lots of dystopian YA out there now and partly because it cheered me to contemplate places more awful than my bathroom floor at 3:00 AM.

XVI, by Julia Karr. XVI = sixteen = SEX-teen = sexting = sending sexy text messages. When teenage girls (only girls?) turn sixteen, they are forced to get a tattoo labeling them sex-teens – legally available for sex. How this is different from places in the world now in which sixteen is indeed the age of legal consent, other than the tattoo, I am not sure. Unless they are forced to be sexually available to any man who asks? It’s not made clear in the part I read.

The setting is a generic near-future dystopia in which government is oppressive, media is evil, and religion has gone the way of the dodo: Gran even reads the Bible. But everyone knows that’s mythology. Although sometimes when I see how good it seems to make Gran feel, I have to wonder if there’s some truth to it.

Worst pro-religion argument ever! Lots of things make you feel good, such as drugs, bacon, and sex. “It feels good” has little to do with “it’s good for you,” let alone “it’s the truth.” And I speak as one who enjoys both bacon and sex.

The three chapters I read were bland, obvious, and tin-eared, combining clunky info-dumping with clunkier slang. I am surprised that no editor knew or cared that “trannie,” here used to mean “motor vehicle,” is, in the real world, generally-offensive slang for “transgender person.” There’s a Resistance movement, imaginatively known as “the Resistance.” To my amusement, members of the Resistance are known as NonCons, which in fanfic circles means non-consensual, ie, rape fantasy. Very appropriate!

The heroine is preachy and judgmental, conveying what I suspect is the author’s horror at the thought of teenage girls having sex. The chapters I read, and the entire concept, reminded me of the infamous Rainbow Party, a book written to capitalize on media-generated horror over “rainbow parties,” in which teenage girls supposedly all wore different colors of lipstick and boys competed to see who could get the most colors on their dick. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be an urban legend. (Sexual Urban Legends: Penis Captivus, Vagina Dentata, Soggy Biscuit, Gerbilling, Mars Bar Party, Sex Parties & Rainbow Parties)

I will not be reading this one. Unless, I suppose, enough people think they’d be amused by a full review that they’d be willing to pony up some charitable donation money for one.
.

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