Mini Review: The best elements of dystopia from a refreshingly different perspective.
Title: The Summer Prince
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Published: March 2013 by Arthur A. Levine Books 289 pages
Recommended if you like: Dystopian YA, novels with rad future tech, ethnic diversity, LGBTQ novels, street art
Read-a-Like: Proxy by Alex London
Rating: 4.75 out of 5 biotech mods
First Line: “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die.”
In futuristic Brazil sits a city: Palmares Três. A city of made of tiers—both physical and economical—maintained by aging tech. A city governed and ruled by women, because it was women who rebuilt society after men nearly destroyed the world. A city where humans live to be 200 years old or more, largely untouched by violence and disease.
A city where every five years a man is elected by the people to briefly reign as the Summer King, whose main job is to “mark [his] choice of the woman to be Queen in gesture or blood” before dying in sacrifice like all Summer Kings before him.
This year the Summer King’s choice means little since he is merely reselecting the Queen for her second five year term. This year the Summer King is traditionally a waka (a citizen under age 30) whose life burns like a firework—a flash of brightness, quickly extinguished. This year the Summer King is Enki and all the wakas love him, none more than June and her best friend Gil.
June is an artist and when she meets Enki by chance and discovers he is an artist as well, the two embark on a series of provocative projects. They bring attention to the economic inequality of the city. Shine a light on the corruption within the government. They bolster the rising rebellion of those who want fewer restrictions in tech trade with other cities. They disrupt a way of life that is four hundred years old. June and Gil become famous, icons of the wakas, gossiped about on the news. Their actions, however, are not without consequences, and the closer June grows to Enki the harder it will be when his time comes to die.
June wanted to be famous. But she’s not sure that she wanted this.
This book has been on my To-Read pile forever and I’m just mad I waited so long. It deserves every bit of praise it’s received. Just when I thought YA dystopia had nothing new to offer, this serves up a big platter of awesome. It should not be a thing that I get excited when books have characters of color, when they are set outside the US, when there are a range of sexualities presented. This should not be a thing because everything should be diverse always. But unfortunately it is a thing and I celebrate every Diverse Book I come across in the hope that someday we won’t need the hashtag anymore.
Johnson gives us a world in which everyone is basically bisexual. June’s rival/friend Bebel suggests June join her and a boy for a threesome. Gil and June “solved their virginity problem together a few years ago” and Gil engages in a long relationship with Enki. June’s mother is recently remarried (her father died a few years ago) to a woman. There is a scene were June masturbates unashamed. It seems this future world has given up many of our current inhibitions about sex. Which is a total win in my book.
Johnson also gives us a world that isn’t white– which shouldn’t be unusual but unfortunately it is. As I was reading I tried to think if I’ve ever read a book set in South America before… and I really don’t think I have. And… like… why? There’s no reason for it. We need more books like this!
And the characters! June is wonderfully flawed and conflicted. She hesitates just enough but does in the end what we know is the right thing to do. She’s ambitious and competitive. That mix of arrogant and as self-doubting that only artistic teenagers can be. She wins me over right away and I root for her throughout the book. Gil is the best friend we all wanted and so few of us ever actually get. Sensitive and loyal. Steadfastly supportive. We want to live up to Gil’s expectations just as much as June, and we want to save him from the hurt we know will come from loving Enki.
And Enki. Enigmatic is the word that describes him best. Enki is our doorway into the inequalities of this world. He shows us and the upper class the reality of the un-charmed life. He makes us believe that we can change things, because he manages to change so much.
And through the roller coaster of events and character development runs a love of the art overlooked by textbooks and museums. Street art. The art of the people. The art that my teens most relate to, the art they want to create is lifted up, praised and validated and so they themselves are validated. And the message rings clear– art can change the world.
The Thought Provoking
I love dystopia for many of the same reasons I love sci-fi: the ability to turn our perspective of normal on its head and use that to tell stories about the human condition. The government in this city is a flip of the gender roles we know. Women run the government, with only a few men opting to enter into politics. Men cannot be trusted to give up power once it is theirs– which is why the Summer King must die. There is a great conversation between June and Gil where Gil tells June it’s okay to cry and she says that it’s fine for him because he’s a beautiful boy, but she can’t cry because it’s a show of weakness. In this world it is women who are expected to be strong and unemotional and men who are allowed to laugh and weep. While ideally in a perfect world neither gender would be subjected to such expectations or stereotypes, seeing them flipped provides an interesting example for teens who read it and allows them to see new possibilities for how to be themselves.
In our world– one where we have fights over e-book vs. print and where the government makes rulings that control what women are allowed to do with their bodies, it is timely to see a struggle in a fictional society over technology. Palmares Três has been strictly regulating what tech its citizens can implant and while many want those restrictions lifted, we see another city, Tokyo 10, where the citizens have made themselves pure technology– data streams living in the cloud. We are asked: is that truly life? How far is too far? Who should say where the line should be? These questions are timely and it is the teens of today that will answer them tomorrow, so it is wonderful to see them presented in such a thoughtful way. Even in the end there is no black and white. There is no “this is right and this is wrong.” It’s much more how our flawed and real world works– complicated and messy.
Reading this book I regularly came across words, terms, names of instruments and songs that were utterly unfamiliar to me. I frequently wondered if the words I didn’t know were made up or if I was simply ignorant of their meaning because of my limited cultural exposure. It made me realize how often the words we use, the references we make, come from white, european derived culture. I humbly check my privilege to realize that even in dystopia, fantasy, sci-fi created worlds I still very rarely feel so adrift in language I struggle to decode. It is good for me to be confused. It is good for me to remember that my culture is one of many, that my background knowledge is not more valid than others. It is not anyone else’s responsibility to remind me of this, but I am grateful when they do.
The Could be a Little Bit Better
I knocked off quarter point because the story arc was a bit uneven. There was a moment about 3/4 of the way through when it seemed to drift and my attention wandered. It seemed to be embarking off in an entirely new direction but at the wrong point in the story for such a deviation. It came back around and I saw why June and Enki had to make that particular journey, but for a bit the story lost its hold over me. A small criticism to be sure, but I aim to be completely honest.
So read it. Right now. Like right now.