Alaya Dawn Johnson – The Summer Prince

Well, this came out of nowhere. The Summer Prince was totally different from what I expected but it completely swept me off my feet. A hundred times. It’s been a few weeks since I read it and I still haven’t quite gotten over my hangover. Short as it is, the story really resonated with me and gives me that warm feeling when I think of certain scenes or descriptions. Believe me, these 300 pages really pack a punch!

summer princeTHE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013
Paperback: 304 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die.

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil. The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist. Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die. Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Wow! Whoever wrote that blurb tried to do the book justice, but it’s not easy to condense the multitude of its themes into a neat little paragraph or two. Alaya Dawn Johnson balances so many subjects in one story that I am stunned by how well each of them was developed and how her characters didn’t get lost on the way.

June Costa is a visual artist. She does graffiti in her free time but she wants something more. She wants fame, she wants Palmares Três to know that she is the best damn artist in the entire city. June’s ambition is unapologetic, which makes her stand out among literary heroines already, but these ambitions don’t exist in a vaccum. The city of Palmares Três , its inequality, its politics, its technology and traditions are as much protagonists as June herself.

I find it hard to talk about any one aspect of the novel without going into long explanations of how the city of Palmares Três works. Which makes it all the more impressive that Alaya Dawn Johnson managed to sneak in all her world-building without boring her readers, dumping information in random places or explaining things in the middle of the plot. Let’s just say, Palmares Três is a highly complex city. In future Brazil – future, as in after everything was bombed to shit – the city is built as much on tradition as it is on modern technology. There are divides between the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the technophiles and those afraid of new technologies. It is also a city based on tradition – one in particular plays a role in this book. The Summer King, chosen by the people, rules for one year alongside the queen, only to be sacrificed at the end. The auditions reminded me a lot of reality TV – you choose to be Summer King but you may not be the only one. Cameras follow the candidates everywhere, interviews are conducted, and the people of Palmares Três watch their holos to make an informed decision.

When Enki becomes Summer King, it is clear from the beginning that he is unlike his predecessors. Coming from the verde, the slums of Palmares Três, his agenda is clear but takes shape only when he collaborates with June to create art. What The Summer King teaches, among other things, is that art can take all kinds of shapes. It doesn’t have to be a picture or a piece of music, a sculpture or a dance. Art can be a statement, a wake-up call to all the politicians pretending the world is perfect. That is exactly what June and Enki set out to do. But this, too, seems like such a small part of a much bigger story. Technology is so advanced that living to see your 150th birthday is nothing special – and with that comes conflict between generations. The political system in general is wildly interesting. At its head, the queen rules, but with her are the Aunties (sort of like ministers) and, of course, the short-lived Summer Kings.

I’ve been rambling about the world-building (because it is seriously awesome!) but the story is still about June. Her fraught relationship with her mother, her trying to live up to her father’s memory, her best friend Gil and his romance with Enki… there’ so much to explore. Palmares Três was a refreshingly diverse place. After June’s father died, her mother remarried one of the Aunties. June’s best friend Gil has a relationship with Enki. Sexuality may not be an issue in Palmares Três but that doesn’t mean the city is perfect. Enki may sleep with Gil, June’s mother can marry a woman, and nobody bats an eye. But the city has other problems, trust me.

I won’t even try to summarize the plot. June’s quest for fame as an artist is a driving force, of course. But then so is her relationship with Enki and with the city she lives in. Palmares Três lives and breathes and while not all is perfect, June realizes that it is her home and special in its own way. YA dystopias are still all the rage, what with the last two Hunger Games movies coming out, and I cannot stress enough how unlike them The Summer Prince is. This is not about a world that is completely messed up, abandon-all-hope-style, and that needs a gigantic revolution to be fixed – if it can be fixed at all. It’s a world in which people genuinely try their best. These powerful people may not all be good and their efforts may not always lead anywhere, but Palmares Três is not without hope.

The ending seems pre-decided from the start and you may not expect a big surprise. Summer Kings die after a year, that is a fact. But Alaya Dawn Johnson didn’t end her book on a purely melancholy note. Instead, June has grown into herself, has learned something about the world she lives in and about the people she loves. There is a bittersweet note to the end that filled me with joy and hope and greed for more of Johnson’s books. I loved every chapter, every page of The Summer Prince and (similar to The Goblin Emperor) am hoping for a sequel even though there really shouldn’t be one…

MY RATING: 8,5/10  – Excellent!

P.S.: Look at that cover. It’s rare that everything on a book cover actually pertains to the story but in this case, they nailed it. June, her art, the pyramid city – it’s all right there. Plus, it’s just really, really pretty! divider1Other reviews: