Review | The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Reviewer: Christina
Release Date: March 1, 2013
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Age Group: YA
Genres: Science fiction, romance, dystopian, cyberpunk, somewhat post-apocalyptic
Format/Source: Hardcover, Borrowed from library
Pages: 289 (hardcover)
Find the Book: Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository

Rating: 4.5/5

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Três 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 Três 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.

Gosh, where do I start?

Pretty much everything about this book is revolutionary on a lot of different levels.

I first heard about The Summer Prince through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. For those of you who don’t know, that’s basically a social media effort to spread awareness about the representation of minorities in books. I heard so much praise for this book in posts about diversity that I became interested in the premise. And since one of my reading missions overall is to read more diverse books, I figured that if the synopsis appealed to me, I would try this out.

Oh HECK YES it appealed to me. There are so many good things in those paragraphs up there. Futuristic Brazil? Art? Romance? Rebellion? Death?

A gloriously non-whitewashed cover?

I was practically screaming with my need for this book. (Please don’t take that in a creepy way, because suddenly that sounds really creepy.)

What I didn’t know was that there would be so many more vivid, subversive, shivery things about this book hidden just under the surface. I’ll be outlining these things below so that any potential readers will be prepared for them, but more importantly, to make sure you all know: put The Summer Prince on your TBR. I don’t care how it gets there as long as it does.

The diversity that drew me to this book in the first place never fails to show up in the most unlikely places. The most obvious way that it’s demonstrated is in the government of Palmares Três itself: it’s almost completely matriarchal. That might not be diversity in itself, but it definitely subverts “gender norms” in today’s society and represents the voices of women. The city’s ruled by a queen, with officials called Aunties who support her. Men have far less political power – in fact, almost none at all, because the apocalypse leading to the founding of Palmares Três was supposedly brought down by the foolishness of men. Though this certainly isn’t the balanced society we’d all like to have, it’s intriguing to see women in power. Also, this society isn’t heteronormative. In other words, it doesn’t view heterosexual couples as the norm. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist’s (June’s) mother has remarried after father’s death (that’s not a spoiler, trust me) – but she’s married a woman. And that’s perfectly normal. It’s fine. Enki, the title character of The Summer Prince is bisexual and polyamorous to some extent. That’s 0kay with everyone as well. Then there’s the ethnic diversity – which I suppose is pretty hard to avoid if a book is set in futuristic Brazil. Many characters are mixed-race or implied to be, and cultures mingle in the city freely.

Yes, yes. So much yes.

But besides diversity, which I love in and of itself, the book is well-done. It’s got all the trappings of a great novel. It’s raw and powerful and pulsing with light. I’m unashamedly, infinitely glad that I found it.

First: themes. I know half of you are already rolling your eyes because who cares about themes, right? So many books end up preaching to the reader about themes and it honestly ruins things sometimes. But when these kinds of messages are executed well, they hit hard. And The Summer Prince, if we’re thinking of it that way, is a punch to the gut. Revolving around issues like love, death, grief, and technology (I know, the last one seems like the odd one out), June’s first-person present-tense narration never pushes morals at the reader, but her observations, her frightening moments of vulnerability, communicate them anyway.

Next: the writing style is great. I know, I know, my nitpicky nature is showing. But seriously, this imagery is awe-inspiring, even a little frightening at times. Palmares Três thrums with danger and screaming beauty, and every sentence is piercing. There’s not much analysis I can do on this, because it really speaks for itself – let’s call it distinctive. It’s edgy and punchy and feels a little violent for some unknowable reason. It’s not afraid to be colorful. It glows, it blares, and it lives. But it might be too much for some readers. I’m sure that there are places online where you can read an excerpt (in fact, it’s in the “Look Inside” on The Summer Prince‘s Amazon page), and that’s probably the best way to figure out if the writing style appeals to you.

The characterization of this – especially in Enki, June, and Gil – was layered and lovely. Again, they’re all so original that it’s hard to explain them, particularly Enki. He’s just one of those people, I suppose, if I were to put it really ineloquently. June’s a wonderful narrator as well, vulnerable in all the right scenes and almost too honest about what she thinks. Her passion for art affects her entire worldview, and this was a great deviation from many YA heroines. This means the character dynamics are also realistic and fascinating. Gil, June, and Enki’s relationship was something not frequently seen in YA – or even novels, period. It was a much-needed representation of polyamory (although I’m not sure how accurate of a relationship it was, since I’m not familiar with polyamory as a whole). But it was a good reminder of “yes, this exists” and a very good fit to the characters that the author had created.

There are a few issues, though, as with most books. Some readers might find the sexual content a little overwhelming – the characters certainly are never afraid to talk about/venture into sex. I’ve read some mixed reviews saying that the sex factor was what killed the book for them. However, I was fine with it. Also, the mingling plot threads sometimes didn’t mesh as cohesively as I’d prefer – the summer king conflict seems like a whole other thing when juxtaposed with the political conflicts occurring in the city.

On the whole, though, this is fabulous, and a very necessary diverse read. So many dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels focus only on, say, North America, and it was great to get this brazenly beautiful perspective on what happened to Brazil.

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