It is Never Just About Art, But Everything Else, Too – A Review of The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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I used to read quite a lot of young-adult books: I had devoured Nancy Drew books when I was in grade school, and had actually moved on from them by the time I hit the age that most people would call “young adult.” And then I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Lioness books when I was thirteen, which I read alongside Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (which I enjoyed, because they reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, which I’d read when I was twelve). And then when I was fourteen, Harry Potter came into my life, and that was pretty much it. I was hooked on YA fiction, and I kept reading it even when I stopped being what anyone might consider a “young adult.” And I do still read it today – albeit with a far, far more cautious approach than the eager engagement I had with the genre years ago.

The reason for this caution is simple, and can be summarized in one word: Twilight. Due to its immense commercial success, writer after writer has published books that are built similar to it – something which I do not enjoy in the least, and which have put me off YA almost for good. Separating the gold from the dross has become far more difficult for me than ever before, especially when I shop around in a bookstore’s YA section. It used to be fairly easy, but now the proliferation of Twilight clones has put me off. Sometimes I do find gems – The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, for instance, or The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, or even Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – but for the most part these gems are few and far between, and I have to hear about them from a podcast or have them recommended to me by a friend before I so much as attempt to read them.

I heard about Alaya Dawn Johnson and The Summer Prince via her interview in Episode 87 of the podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’ve discovered quite a few authors in this manner: one of the podcasts I listen to will interview an author on their show, and as the author discusses her or his work or works, I will find myself intrigued by one or more of the works in question, and will find a way to get a copy so I can read it. I’ve discovered quite a few favorites in this manner: Scott Lynch, author of the Gentlemen Bastards books that I (and my friends) simply adore, I discovered via his author interview on the Sword & Laser Podcast. I also discovered Saladin Ahmed, author of the Nebula Award-nominated Throne of the Crescent Moon, via his author interview on Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. As I listened to Johnson discuss her writing process and the motivations behind the things she did in The Summer Prince I found myself intrigued, so I found myself a copy, and settled down to start reading.

As it turns out The Summer Prince is quite an enjoyable read, albeit a rather problematic one. It doesn’t come off that way, at first, but as the story progresses some readers may find themselves frowning all the way to the end.

The Summer Prince is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The world has been ravaged by nuclear war, as well as a disease called the Y Plague, which, like the disease in the graphic novel Y the Last Man, kills of any person with a Y chromosome (note that I say “person”: unlike in Y the Last Man, the Y plague in The Summer Prince is limited to humans). But this is, for the most part, all in the past, and in the floating pyramid city Palmares Tres, housing a population mostly made up of people from what was once Brazil, that is just what it is: the past, albeit one that influences the present in the form of the annual sacrifice of the Summer King, and the selection of a new one. In the midst of all this is June Castro, a young artist who believes she is “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” supported by her best friend, Gil. However, on the year that Enki, a beautiful boy from the verde, the lowest class of Palmares Tres society, is elected the Summer King, June finds her life significantly altered as, with Enki’s help, she learns that her art has greater power than simply being a thing of beauty.

One of the complaints some reviewers have made about this book is that it does not completely explain the society of Palmares Tres, and why things are the way they are. I suppose some readers would have trouble figuring out what is going on, particularly if they have not had much experience reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi (or history, for that matter), but I, for my part, did not have too difficult a time inferring what was going on in this society. It is true that Johnson does not go into detail about a lot of things, but much can be learned from context clues and a careful reading of images and symbols – such as the fact that Palmares Tres is built as a pyramid, and that there are levels and tiers, some of which can only be accessed by certain people who are given clearance. Johnson leaves it up to the reader to figure out what is going on – and this is something I appreciate. It might not please some readers, but it will certainly please those of us who are already old hands at this kind of thing and enjoy it when an author makes us work a little to understand the setting of a story.

Another complaint some reviewers have made about this book is the sex, and some have gone so far as to complain about the homosexuality written about in the novel. Such complaints puzzle me, particularly since this is clearly a futuristic society, where sexuality is really no big deal and where virginity does not have the cachet it used to have. I speculate this issue finds its roots in a variety of causes (one of them being homophobia), but I speculate that it primarily comes from the fact that they forget that Palmares Tres is not patriarchal, but matriarchal, meaning that certain concepts that are valued (enforced, I’d rather say) in today’s overwhelmingly patriarchal society no longer apply. It is far from a perfect society, of course (careful reading of dialogue will reveal sexism in the culture of Palmares Tres), but in creating this matriarchy for Palmares Tres, Johnson is able to create a space where she can question contemporary society’s overly-patriarchal values system. In fact, I am very much pleased that the stereotypical YA love triangle of two boys vying for a girl’s attentions has been altered in this novel, with a girl and a boy vying for the attentions of a boy – and the boy managing to claim the other boy’s romantic attention instead of the girl. That June loves both Enki and Gil makes things even more complicated, but I prefer it that way instead of the straightforward depiction of love triangles that seem to be at the core of most YA today.

However, despite this brilliant and admittedly intriguing setup, there are quite a few problems with this novel, beginning with the characters themselves. I have few complaints about Gil – in fact I rather adore him. Enki, on the other hand, is odd, and while he tends to chalk up his behavior to the fact that he is the son of a Salvadorean refugee who was let into Palmares Tres only because she had something of incredible value to the people running Palmares Tres and is therefore nothing but a poor verde boy with no other chance at improving his life except by being chosen the Summer King does not seem substantial enough to explain all his other behaviors. The story explains his motivations, certainly, but it does little to explain his rather odd personality, particularly towards the latter end off the novel. Enki himself often brushes off his odd behavior as begin a result of the mods he’s implanted into himself, and though this manages to satisfy June, it is hardly satisfying for the reader. Perhaps he really is just “like that,” but not a lot of readers are every happy with that kind of excuse.

I also have some concerns about June. The novel is written in first-person point-of-view, and while I have no problems with June’s narrative voice (she has an artistic turn of phrase which I enjoy), her personality is another story. While I understand the need to create a three-dimensional character who has flaws, I found the explanation behind June’s to be somewhat unsatisfactory. I can somewhat see where Johnson was trying to take her, but towards the latter third of the book things start to take a downward spiral, and I am rather dissatisfied with the way she is portrayed at the end. It feels as if she didn’t quite mature, or if she did, the event that causes her to well and truly grow up does not come until almost the very end, at which point it is far too late to see the impact of that event on her development as a character.

As for the plot, that is just as problematic as June’s personality. It starts off as incredibly promising, but towards the middle it begins to lose all the great, shining promise it had at the beginning, and then seems to peter out into an ending that attempts to be hopeful, but which does not quite feel that way, at least to me. The central conflict between the Isolationists and the Technophiles is interesting, albeit it has been done often enough in other sic-fi that it had me raising my eyebrow a bit. Nevertheless, I thought that Johnson would give it a more intriguing spin, but that is not the case in the least. In particular, I found the political machinations in the latter third of the book to have been rather silly, since they could have created so much more danger and depth, but they did not seem utilized to their fullest extent. And when Enki and June ran away from Palmares Tres, it was obvious that they would be tracked down because of Enki’s mods so their capture was not in the least surprising when I thought it ought to have been. FInally, the ending – Enki dead, Oreste ousted from her place, and June made the new Queen of Palmares Tres – was rather anticlimactic. There is no destruction of the system that I had hoped would occur, no revolution to completely change the way things are in Palmares Tres. Instead what occurs is merely a transfer of the reins of power to June, who may change the way things are – or may not, in the end, instead choosing to subscribe to the old system and merely going on the way things were. This is dissatisfying because there is no real, lasting change – unless, of course, that is what Johnson hoped to accomplish, in which case this is a thoroughly depressing ending to what could have been a very hopeful story.

Overall, The Summer Prince starts off as a fascinating, very promising read: an interesting premise and a fairly well-built world, held together by Johnson’s exquisite prose – there is a scene in the book that describes a capoeira battle, and the writing is such that one can almost feel the thump of the drums and the taste of adrenaline on the back of one’s tongue. It’s potential is increible and explosive, and its depiction of a futuristic society is one that I and many other readers can approve of, especially where it tackles themes of sexuality. However, this novel is plagued with problems of its own: characters that are not entirely well-built, and the plot loses a lot of its brilliant potential after the middle portion of the book. The ending, too, is rather disappointing, a sharp contrast to the promise of the novel’s beginning. It is a beautiful and intriguing world that Johnson has created, but it is unfortunate that it does not really reach its full potential in this novel.


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