December 29, 2013

Review: The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two five-star books in a row. We're on a roll here.

When I finished this book last night, the first thing I thought when I closed the back cover was, "What a beautiful, tragic story." And it is. It has elements of Romeo and Juliet (except that Juliet lives), and it also reminds me of Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover (which is one of my all-time favorite books). Lee still has Johnson beat for the sheer loveliness of her language, but Alaya Dawn Johnson, in her ability to write an engrossing, layered, sad, bittersweet, and ultimately uplifting coming-of-age story, is nipping right at the master's heels.

Johnson's world is a complex one, set four hundred years from now, after a plague and a nuclear war that kills hundreds of millions of people, and more than 70% of the males alive at the time. Her futuristic pyramid city, Palmares Tres (and said city is marvelously described and characterized, taking on true life) is in Brazil, in a world where nanotechology and artificial intelligence thrives, the Northern Hemisphere is pretty much lost to a lingering nuclear winter, and in some countries, humans leave their bodies behind to live in the data streams.

But Palmares Tres has its own peculiar rituals: its ruling Aunties, almost all women past their first century, are an unsettling mix of technophiles and technophobes (anyone under thirty is called a waka, and not trusted very far), and the story's plot centers on their five-year ritual of electing a young man who will have his throat cut the following year, and in his dying, select the next Queen.

They call him the Summer King.

This is the story of the Summer King named Enki, a young artist named June Costa, and her best friend Gil. Enki falls in love with both, which makes for an unusual love triangle, to say the least. June creates art (and later, love) with Enki, and tries to help him escape his end--but the Summer King's death is inevitable, and at the last Enki is willing to sacrifice himself for his city, Palmares Tres. But in a final unexpected twist, at the moment of his death, he chooses June as the new Queen.

There's a lot more to it than that, of course. This is a deep, layered book, and you really need to take the time to read it slowly and savor it. It's not a quick beach read, that's for sure. June is a marvelous character, caught up in her art and obsessed with the death of her father, who committed ritual suicide two years before. Over the course of the book, she works out her complicated feelings about her parents, and accepts that her mother could not have stopped her father's kiri. The gradual repairing of her relationship with her mother is a wonderful subplot.

But the best thing about this book is its setting and characters. I've read a lot of young-adult books this year, and while I enjoyed most of them, I must say that every single one of them has been about a Thin White American Teenager. Which is not to say said books are bad...but it's about time YA authors start thinking outside this confining box. Alaya Dawn Johnson does this wonderfully. Not only is this book set in a future Brazil, with all the differences in culture, language and history this would imply, but all the characters, as far as I can tell, are people of color. Enki wears dreadlocks and is "dark as molasses," and while June is as light-skinned "as is permitted in Palmares Tres," after swimming in the ocean she still lets her hair dry to a "salt-encrusted Afro" she doesn't bother to comb.

This is so, so refreshing. Also refreshing is the complete absence of restrictive American sexual norms--boys fall in love with both boys and girls, and women marry both men and women, and no one thinks twice about it.

Hopefully, this book will be up for some awards. It's just a wonderful, wonderful story. Don't miss it.

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