The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013.
June Costa is an artist with ambition. She wants to be the best artist in Palmares Tres. She and her best friend, Gil, are determined to ensure that Enki is elected as the city’s Summer King. But things become much more complicated after Enki becomes the Summer King. When June and Gil first meet him, Enki and Gil fall head over heels in love, leaving a confused June on the sidelines. But in Enki she discovers another artist, and together they explore the subversive side of art as Enki seeks to draw attention to the inequities in the city.
This books gets it right on so many levels, I’m not sure where to start. The best science fiction is, at its heart, social criticism, and this book fits that category. It is dystopian. But the plot is not dependent on revolution and war. The spectacle at its heart, the institution of the Summer King, is every bit as harsh and violent as the Hunger Games. But Enki manages to turn his acceptance of that role into a subversive act. Science fiction, especially that written for YA audiences, is often criticized for lacking in diversity. The Summer Prince breaks that trend. The main characters are not white, and homosexuality and bisexuality are a normal, accepted part of life in Palmares Tres. That’s just the way it is and the book treats these issues in a matter of fact way that provides an example of just how it can, and should, be done.
This is not a simple or an easy book. But good science fiction isn’t. It makes you think. The reader is dropped into a futuristic Brazil without an extended explanation or back-story. Johnson does not waste time explaining. But that doesn’t mean the reader will be lost if he or she pays attention. June is a real person, not an almost-perfect heroine. She still blames her mother for her father’s suicide two years ago. She has never considered her chief rival as a person, just as someone to hate. But the beauty of the story is that she grows and learns. She has to choose between art that matters and her ambitions. In order to do what she thinks is right, she will have to sacrifice the likelihood of a normal, successful, comfortable life.
I was an Art Historian before I became a Librarian. The Art Historian in me loves the way this book explores the role of art. Is art just beautiful? Or is the best art somehow inherently subversive? Art in this book is a spectacle. It is political. June has to choose between what she feels art should be and her ambition for a successful career and popularity.
This book also examines love, and not just in a romantic sense. Enki chooses to become the Summer King because of his love for the city. He uses his position as a way to make a difference, to bring attention to the inequities in the system and help the people of the “verde,” the poorest level of the city, the level where he grew up. But he has taken some body modifications that ensure that he loves everyone. What does that mean? Is it possible to love everyone? Are there different degrees of love? What are the implications for romantic love? Those questions are issues that both Gil and June have to face.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve given this book 5 stars. It was absolutely not what I was expecting. It was SO much more! I’d recommend this to fans of Ursula Le Guin or Robert Heinlein. With that said, I would add the caveat that readers should be aware that this is a sexually explicit book and, as I mentioned earlier, homosexuality and bisexuality are treated as perfectly normal. Of course, fans of Le Guin and Robert Heinlein won’t be shocked by that.
- The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson: review (nicolelisa.wordpress.com)
- Samba, Spiderbots And ‘Summer’ Love In Far-Future Brazil – Book Review by Petra Mayer on NPR