Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Genre: YA, dystopian/utopian, post-apocalyptic, magical realism, cyberpunk, urban fantasy
Publication Date: March 1, 2013 (Scholastic – North America)
Source: Traded-for ARC/NetGalley review copy
Summary: 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.
☆: 4/5 stars – a delicious debut from Johnson!
Review: This book is no less than stunning in nearly every way – a luscious, almost decadent read of a future city in a pyramid, with almost something for everyone, including magical realism, cyberpunk and sci-fi, a crazy mix of South American/Cuban-Afro and Japanese cultures. This is a tale of death and kings, of queens and machines, of youth and love, of war and peace. “The Summer Prince” is definitely one of my favorite books of 2013 so far because of its delicate yet bold storytelling, and because of Johnson’s brave portrayal of a future society where who you love doesn’t matter, unless it’s the Summer King – doomed to die each year so that the Queendom may continue.
This is a pretty spicy read (no pun intended, considering where it takes place) for YA – I’d almost say it moves closer to mature YA than anything else, because of some of the themes it introduces. There’s the idea that pansexuality is decriminalized (our MC has two moms, for crying out loud), that polyamory happens (I won’t spoil any further on that point), and that a society can only flourish if a woman is in charge, and executes a man each year as her Summer King. I can safely say that this may make it to some banned book lists, but you know what? That would just put the exclamation point in terms of how awesome this book is, how bold it is. It introduces some very provocative ideas that may not even get introduced in adult lit, and my hat goes off to Johnson for being brave enough to try to write all of these things for YA, period.
Let’s start with the world. The only issue I had with the worldbuilding was that I was a little bit fuzzy on how Palmares Tres was built (where everything was), and the calendar structure (normal years vs moon years vs sun years, and how the Summer King sacrifices all fit into that. The rest of the world in terms of imagery was gorgeous, and there were no real issues with that for me. The backstory was great, though it was a bit late, and felt a little infodumpy, but otherwise really good.While I could pick a serious bone when it came to the Palmares Tres-adopted idea of “kiri” (as in harakiri, Japanese ritualistic male/samurai suicide), I’m not going to, not really, because everything else is just so good in this book. I’ll just say that it fits with this futuristic city, but she got the origins in terms how each gender committed ritual honor suicide a bit wrong. Harakiri/Seppuku (depending on how you read the kanji) was reserved for male samurai, and as the kanji suggests, it’s self-disembowelment, not cutting one’s own throat – though you did offer it to your servant overseeing your suicide so that they could decapitate you after death. Women would commit ritual honor suicide by drowning themselves after their husbands, or also engaging in harakiri, though the former was a far more “clean” way to go.
That being said, I love how Johnson went ahead and combined all of these different cultures together to make Palmares Tres, and you can see all of those elements of those different cultures throughout the book in very strong, pronounced ways. In that way, the worldbuilding was bold, and I loved it.
The characters. Unforgettable. I think even I fell in love with Enki. They’re all very layered, the entire main cast – including the most minor characters. This is where Johnson shines the most – with her characters. June, Gil, and Enki are absolutely amazing, and the messy sort-of-love triangle (which was totally forgivable because it brought the whole GLBT thing into the mix, and that was awesome) and the question of ‘friends or lovers?’ was present the entire time, and even June herself isn’t sure for most of the book, nor is Gil, nor is Enki. June is a great firey, feisty protagonist, and it was a real joy to watch her grow throughout the book.
The theme of this book is perhaps the most important of all – the transience of youth and life, represented by the role of the Summer King. He dies so the rest of the world within Palmares Tres can continue to flourish. In a world where you can now live over three hundred years with body modifications, it seems that everyone forgets that humans can actually die. Everyone but those in Palmares Tres, who the world views as barbaric and backward. I thought this was an excellent touch, especially when we see Ueda explain it all to Enki and June with the whole system of the Aunties, the Queen, and the Summer King.
What did need work aside from the aforementioned parts of the worldbuilding – transitions. Many of these transitions were pretty cloudy and ambiguous, and while I love that in a book and can see it used as a style, here it was just obvious that it needed a bit more editing. Then again, I got an early ARC of things, so I’m hoping by the time the final copy is out on shelves, all of that will have been solved.
Otherwise, final verdict? Definitely a breathtaking debut that can’t be missed, you simply must give “The Summer Prince” a try. “The Summer Prince” is out now from Scholastic in North America, so be sure to check it out when you get the chance!