Palmares Três is s shimmering city, a pyramid in the sea that is beautiful and brutal. June has never known a life outside Palmares Três and only know small details of places that came before her pyramid city with names like Brazil.
But even the lovely greenery of Palmares Três can’t hide the savagery behind the legacy of the Summer Kings. Summer Kings are elected by the people. At the end of their year they choose the next queen–the existing queen, but still it is a choice. Then the queen kills them. And it all starts again.
June is used to this ritual. Everyone is. But things change when Enki is becomes the new Summer King. The first changes are small ones–impulsively choosing June’s best friend Gil as a consort, a calculated act of rebellion during an election performance. Small things that hint at something far greater.
For reasons she can’t always grasp, June is drawn to Enki. Partly because every waka with a beating heart is drawn to Enki because he is just like them: another city-dweller marginalized because he is under thirty. But June also thinks she might be able to use Enki to take her art to a new level–to create on a bigger scale.
As this unlikely but ultimately right pair sets out on a campaign of confusion and protest in the name of art, June can hardly imagine that together they’ll change the course of Palmares Três forever in The Summer Prince (2013) by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
The Summer Prince is Johnson’s YA debut.
There is a lot going on in The Summer Prince. The text is dense and rich with detail as readers are thrown head first into the unfamiliar, futuristic city of Palmares Três. The world building here is, without question, top notch. Johnson does an excellent job with it. The story structure, while messy in some respects, works and tightens the plot in clever ways as both Enki’s and June’s paths unfold over the course of four seasons. June is a brisk narrator who explains very little but that often enhances the epic scope of the story.
That said this story felt very high concept and very distant. June is a motivated heroine with a singular focus until the very end of the story. Consequently her narrative is narrow at times forcing the story in strange directions.
Really, all of the characters were often one-dimensional in their motivations and despite the short page length, it felt like the story dragged and dragged with several plot reveals coming too late to hold any real significance. June is an artist first and foremost and her shift from art-for-exposure to art-as-protest and then back to a simpler art-as-beauty is one of the most interesting aspects of this novel. Johnson starts a great discussion about art here–high concept, performance and transgressive–but with the stopping point of the story she also leaves much of that discussion unfinished.
Unfortunately, all of this thoughtfulness in the plot and the setting made other aspects of the story glaringly incongruous. One of the biggest difficulties in the story is the age structure of Palmares Três.
June is a teenager but that doesn’t mean the same thing in her world as it does here and many of her choices are not the decisions of a teenager but a grown up. But that also doesn’t work given the constructs of the world of Palmares Três. The story posits that people can live for centuries and everyone under 30 (wakas) are seen as little more than children. Given the prolonged life span it’s fair to argue that they really are children (30 even seems a low cutoff to mark adulthood when talking about people who are 150 or older).
Why then are all of these children–young people even by modern standards–treated like adults?
June is diminished and dismissed for her youth throughout the story but is also doing everything adults do from a very young age (younger even than the 17ish years she is during the novel). This disconnect became distracting and brought into question every other societal choice in Palmares Três–why is June’s school structure largely the same as our own is just one big question that comes up and threatens to shatter the entire premise.
It is great seeing this post-heterosexual, pan-sexual society where love isn’t always a black-and-white binary structure. But again it creates problems in the book. The dynamic between Gil and Enki and June feels off somehow. June says throughout the story that Gil and Enki are deeply in love–something both characters affirm repeatedly–yet in the end, when a decision has to be made, it isn’t Gil who Enki tries to run away with. It’s June. Gil gives June a pass for that, saying she tries to save Enki at least, saying if Enki has to be with someone else at least it is June. But the decision still felt strange and ill-fitted with everything else that happened between these three characters.
The Summer Prince is technically fantastic and will demand consideration long after it’s finished. The skill of Johnson’s writing is obvious and so much of this story just begs to be discussed either in a book club or a classroom or just among a group of readers. However small choices in the plot with the social structure and the age of the characters kept detracting from the story. At first the problems are minor, but then they keep building up.
This book is marketed as YA and features teen characters however much of the story would have made so much more sense if it had been marketed to an adult audience as a story about twenty-somethings. Recommended for teen readers who enjoy books with a literary streak or twenty-somethings (or older) who want a book about sticking it to the Man (or Woman as the case may be in this matriarchal society).
Possible Pairings: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, Proxy by Alex London, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Extras by Scott Westerfeld, A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner