I was hoping for an explicitly feminist young adult dystopia here, maybe an updated The Handmaid's Tale for the younger crowd. Something empowering, that assured teen girls that yes, sexuality is sometimes complicated, and exploring it is okay if you want to, and waiting is just fine too. Instead, what I got was some wishy-washy future-lite with a trite love story thrown in. Ugh.
Can I just say? I am so fucking sick of love triangles.
Or complex polygons, as might be more appropriate here. Maybe I'm getting too old for silly high school drama. I did appreciate the absence of a "love at first sight" storyline. It does, however, feature the "love interest is a creepy stalker (but his dedication is endearing!)" trope.
So anyway, in Julia Karr's dystopian vision, all girls are tattooed with the Roman numerals "XVI" on their wrists upon reaching the age of sixteen. This lets any leering men nearby know they're fair game for sex and violence and whatever other recreational perviness they can imagine. The government and media advertise this as a rite-of-passage all girls should aspire to, and lots of girls embrace being "sex-teens". But not our protagonist, Nina, because she is an innocent, virginal girl we should all emulate! Excuse me while I gag on all the self-righteousness.
Of course, since this is a dystopia, the government and media are responsible for lots of other vaguely sinister things, but I honestly feel like "dystopia" should be in scare quotes because the world-building is so lazy. Cliches abound. Surveillance everywhere? Check. Hovercars? Check. Future-slang and unnecessary acronyms? Check, check. High-tech communication gadgets that sound exactly like cell phones? Check. (Seriously, this was written last year -- you can't even extrapolate from modern technology?) Other than a few such futuristic acoutrements, we're given no information on how society has changed in the intervening decades between the present day and the 2170s, when this novel is supposed to be set. One could almost guess this was a contemporary novel. The rape culture represented here is certainly very similar to what women today live with.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with this book. For what is apparently supposed to be a feminist novel, there is a ridiculous amount of slut-shaming here. Every interaction Nina has with her best friend, Sandy, is a classic example of the virgin-whore dichotomy at work. What's more, the author seems completely oblivious to this. I'll spoiler-alert this, but it should come as no surprise to people who are familiar with how sexual female characters are portrayed in mainstream entertainment: Sandy, who is boy-crazy and described as dressing revealingly in the text, gets killed, while our Madonna protagonist decides not to have sex with her boyfriend (despite almost losing control to those eeeeeevil hormones) and lives. Pro-tip: Your dystopia isn't horrifying enough? Just have one of the female characters raped, killed, and thrown in a ditch! She dressed like a hooker, so she had it coming, right?
I wish these awful stereotypes and terrible messages to send to teenage girls could have been at least partially offset by good writing, but that is sadly not the case. The first third of the book largely consists of clunky infodumps in the form of "As you know..." dialogue, the foreshadowing is over-the-top obvious, and all the twists can be seen coming from a mile away. The characters are all pretty one-dimensional and I'm shocked the villain didn't have a mustache to twirl, because he was a walking cliche in every other way. The whole thing was just extremely heavy-handed stylistically.
You know what? This started off as a two-star review, because I really liked the concept and it was a quick, easy read, but now I'm pissed. One star. Goddamnit.