Christal’s Review – 3.5 Skulls – B-
Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer King pulled me in with the promise of a dystopian novel not set in the US or the UK. What it really became was a look at change and revolution and how far you should go to change a broken system. I did enjoy reading this novel, Ms. Johnson’s prose was beautiful and descriptive, but I never fell in love with the main character, June Costa. I also felt that the world-building was a little hit and miss. The city of Palmares Tres (what was once Brazil) was imaginative and well-described, but the history behind the plague and why society developed as it did was less clear. The overall narrative developed at a very slow pace; the story changed from what is seemed to be about in the beginning to something completely different by the end. As an adult reader, I liked having to put all the pieces together but I wonder if younger readers might struggle a little with connecting everything into a cohesive narrative.
June Costa is a waka, someone under thirty, and an artist. She constantly feels she isn’t taken seriously by the grandes, the adults, around her and decides to use her art to shake up the system. She starts at the crowning of the Summer King, a waka boy who is chosen to rule for one year and then give his life in sacrifice for the prosperity of the city, by staging a small piece in support of a boy named Enki. This small display is the beginning of June and Enki’s lives entwining and was the catalyst for the majority of the book. As Enki and June recognize an artistic sameness in each other, they begin to stage more and more daring pieces of art that bring some of the society’s “dirty little secrets” to light and anger Palmares Tres’ ruling body, comprised of a Queen and other prominent women known as Aunties.
The society of Palmares Tres has developed into a matriarchy, mainly because of two issues: one, the plague wiped out much of the male population and it is just now getting back to equal numbers and two, it as seen as men’s fault for the plague and the failure of earlier society so it is decided that it is the women’s turn to run society now. This made for an interesting political backdrop. Ms. Johnson didn’t try to turn her book into a showcase for how women could run the world so much better. Instead, she focused on how everyone is flawed, men and women, and how ultimate power can corrupt. The addition of extended life spans just adds to the potential corruption and creates an age divide between the sensibilities of the wakas and the grandes.
Enki the Summer King has very deft insight into the evils of society and the problem of the grandes losing touch with the world around them. He tries to open the eyes of the wakas around him, but it is really through June that he is able to make a difference. June is excited by working with Enki at first, but she quickly finds herself in over her head. She has to learn where her line is… how can she balance having a future and not embarrassing her mother and stepmother while still fighting for the art and change that she is coming to believe in?
This novel also tackles issues of sexuality and love in a very mature way. Palmares Tres does not discriminate when it comes to love and anyone can love as they choose. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are all unremarkable in this society. There is no conflict when the Summer King chooses another waka boy as his first consort, just as there is no fuss about June’s mother marrying another woman after her husband passes away. Love is love in this society and you can choose to express it however feels right.
Race and cultural issues are also touched on in The Summer Prince. Enki himself is from the Verde, the lower, poorer levels of Palmares Tres. His skin is darker than what is considered the normal and he has different political ideals because of his upbringing. While these characteristics may be seen as disadvantages, they are treated as positives in this novel. He uses those differences to stand out and gain the love of the wakas and, eventually, to make a change in grande society. Another interesting character is the Japanese diplomat, Ueda-sama. He tells us about how the Japanese society has so embraced new technology and body modifications that they no longer belong to the flesh. Instead, they have basically turned themselves into data streams that “live” forever.
Unfortunately, the main character of June serves as a source of frustration throughout much of the novel. While she is supposed to be young and represent the voice of the wakas, I found her to be whiny and stubborn. I did not connect with her emotionally much of the time and I felt like she didn’t search for the answers she needed, instead focusing on issues and situations of lesser importance. In the end, Enki was the character of change, the true driving force of the novel. Enki made things happen and brought everyone else along for the ride. He tried to make those around him better and to make a positive impact on society. Because he knew he would die in a year, Enki didn’t hold back. All his actions were done full-throttle and he constantly sought to make others live up to what he saw as their potential.
The Summer Prince was a very unique take on the dystopian genre and Ms. Johnson proved that she has some serious writing chops. While I had some issues with characterization and world-building, I would still recommend this to readers who are looking for something a little different.
Thank you to Netgalley and Arthur A. Levine Books for providing an ARC copy of this book!
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