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The Summer Prince

Review

The Summer Prince

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s YA debut, THE SUMMER PRINCE, is definitely not a typical dystopian sci-fi novel. Filled with beautiful descriptions of the power of art and music, this novel will transport you into a pulsating and energetic world filled with Brazilian samba, spider bots, and performance-art.

June Costa is the best artist in Palmares Três, a vertically structured pyramid city, rising from the middle of a bay in what was once Brazil. Four hundred years after a nuclear apocalypse has destroyed climates and cities, and the Y plague has wiped out more than half the male population, Palmares Três is founded, named after the 17th century fugitive, slave-free community. With the rich residing at the top and the poor at the bottom, Palmares Três is a lush and vibrant world that survives because of its extraordinary fusion of archaic ritual and nanotechnology.

"I loved the way that Johnson plays with opposites in this book, cleverly juxtaposing and forcing together technology and samba, art and politics, personal love and worldly love."

Controlled by women called “Aunties” and a Queen who rules for two five-year terms, Palmares Três has devised its own unique system of transferring sovereignty: the Summer King ritual. Fearful of men whose lust for power destroyed the world, the first rulers of Palmares Três decided that the only way to avoid another apocalypse was to cut down their kings at the height of their power. Every five years, the people of Palmares Três elect a Summer King, who rules with all the power, popularity and allure of a rock star. After a year is up, the king is killed by the current queen in a bloody sacrifice. He chooses the next queen while dying, with gesture or blood. A dying man’s choice is thought to be unbiased and pure; “the blood sanctifies the choice.”

As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa, with the help of her best guy friend Gil, is determined that it be Enki, a beautiful young man from the algae farming slums called the “catinga,” at the base of the pyramid city. June begins the book as a bratty, angry teenager from Tier 8 whose father has recently died, ending his technologically-prolonged life by choice. June is likeable and believable as a slightly naïve girl who spends her days creating mischievous performance-art stunts and dancing the samba with Gil. Everything changes though when Enki is elected Summer King and falls in love with Gil.

Johnson turns the love triangle on its head with this twist, making the heroine a third wheel in a sensitively-depicted gay relationship. While jealous of Gil’s connection to Enki at first, June quickly forms her own relationship with the Summer King through her art. These three quickly become the head and heart of a rebellion in Palmares Três that has been a long time coming. The Queen and Aunties hoard their power, letting little to no new technology into the city, insisting it is the only way to prevent destruction. But Enki, who has a special bond with the city (I won’t give away what this is), insists that Palmares Três is crumbling around them anyway, and the Aunties refuse to see it. The society’s genetically prolonged lives have created a division between the older grandes who fear change and the young wakas who are desperate for it.

As the book continues, June begins to question her own values about what is important in love, art, technology, tradition --- even sex. Is winning the prestigious, scholarly Queen’s award really worth the implied subversion into a corrupt system that ritually cuts down its best men? Or should she listen to her Papai’s advice and continue to ask herself “but what is right June?” By the end of the book, June’s journey from selfish, insecure teen to rebellious artist to disillusioned waka and finally to passionate activist, will take your breath away.

I loved the way that Johnson plays with opposites in this book, cleverly juxtaposing and forcing together technology and samba, art and politics, personal love and worldly love. The relationships between the characters are astounding. In Johnson’s future, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual relationships are common. June’s mother remarries a woman, an Auntie even, and while Gil and June both love Enki in different ways, this never interferes with their friendship, and the three actually bring out the best in each other. Bebel, however, was my favorite character. Best in her class and determined to win the Queen’s award, Bebel still wants to be friends with June because she values the competition. Here is the mean, catty, popular girl turned around. LGBQ may not be an issue in this futuristic world, yet ageism, classism and racism still exist, and the teens are constantly confronted with these issues and must create their own beliefs.

Be warned though, Johnson is very comfortable with ambiguity in her world building. While her writing is beautiful and lyrical, the story is told entirely from June’s point of view, first person all the way; the only glimpses we get of Enki’s thoughts come in tiny italicized paragraphs that are more about his love of the city than any form of explanation. Johnson is deeply committed to the world she has created, and at times, she alienates the reader without meaning to. For example, the terms waka and grande are not explained until about 100 pages in, and the sci-fi technology described is difficult to picture. Johnson seems to ask the reader to just go along with the story, and occasionally she’ll throw us a bone and tell us what a term means. She demands that the reader pay attention. Her action scenes in particular are confusing and difficult to follow. I think this book could definitely have benefited from a glossary. Johnson intermingles Portuguese words and traditions from Brazilian culture randomly, with no regard for the reader’s limited knowledge.

THE SUMMER PRINCE is a wonderfully fresh take on everything we love: dystopia, ancient civilization, art, LGBQ and sci-fi. While it is a bit advanced for a young adult novel, if you stick with it, you’ll fall in love with Palmares Três and Enki just like I did. Oh, and when you finish make sure to go back and read the first page again:

The lights are out in Palmares Três.
Why did they go out?
Because I told them to.

The lights are out in Palmares Três.
Why are you alone?
Because I left you.

The lights are out in Palmares Três.
How do I know?
Because I am dead.

Reviewed by Alice Dalrymple on April 8, 2013

The Summer Prince
by Alaya Dawn Johnson