A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.
The lush city of Palmares Tres 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 Tres 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.
Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.
The Summer Prince is an important new book in YA. Alaya Dawn Johnson presents a fascinating future society, unlike any other I’ve read. Rather than raising questions about the possibility of an all-powerful political regime, it looks into the social and cultural aspects of the potential future. It was an Earth-shaking novel for me, and I believe it will be for many others.
The story starts with the election for the Summer King, an event that takes place every five years. The Summer King is a politician who is more a figurehead and sex god than someone with any power. He serves one vital purpose, however: At the end of his year-long term, whoever is elected will be sacrificed in a ritual in which he chooses the next queen. During his short reign, he is showered with love and adoration, and given access to anything he could want. Enki, the contestant who is elected, is from the poorest class. He gives the Queen and “Aunties” (who are the other women in power) a little more than they bargained for: far from being just a sex god, he is an artist pushing against all the boundaries of what the Summer King should be, driven by the injustices the lower classes face.
A little ways in, you find out June has been chosen as one of the contestants in the competition for the Queen’s Choice Award, the most prestigious award available to people her age, granting whoever wins it renown in the city, and a free-ride to the most acclaimed art school. June, driven by her passion for her art, and her belief in the messages she includes in it, sees that Enki is of a similar make. She cleverly sets up a meeting with the man the whole city is salivating over, and they start a collaboration on a project that is sure to secure her the award.
The city of Palmares Tres is built as a giant pyramid, with the highest classes living at the top. The people in the poorest class live at the very bottom of the structure, where there is a perpetual stink coming from the algae vats that power the city, and they have very little access to the things the rest of the city has been granted. They have been forced to master illegal technology: The city, being automated, has biases against lower-class citizens literally installed into it. As June and Enki grow closer, June starts to see this ugly side of the city she so loves, which had previously been hidden from her by her privilege. The lower-class people, fed up with this treatment and emboldened by seeing one of their own in a position of power, begin pushing for more access. Others join the struggle for fewer regulations on the “mods” allowed into the city. The Queen and Aunties, are steadfast against moving their regulations. Eventually, this friction reaches a tipping point and protests break out, which become accidentally violent. Enki and June’s art projects have unintentionally elevated them as the icons of this revolution, which puts them both in a dangerous and incredibly powerful position.
June was an amazing protagonist. Pretentious, in possession of complete sexual freedom, passionate, and artistic, she was an unusual female protagonist, and I loved watching her deal with different things in her life. The other characters were well-formed too. ENKI. I loved Enki with all of my heart (I swear to god, whoever wrote the blurb isn’t joking about the fact that everyone falls in love with him). Gil, June’s best friend, was fabulous. Even the minor ones caught my attention, and I wish we could’ve seen more of them. I especially wanted June to develop a closer friendship with another female, but, alas. She did have a wonderfully complex relationship with her mother, which I enjoyed seeing.
Johnson defines her book as more of a work of science fiction than a dystopia, and I think that fits. Most dystopia is formed by an all-controlling political regime, and while The Summer Prince has a corrupted political system, it does not go to the extremity that dystopias do. Johnson instead delves completely into all aspects of the future, the new but very familiar conflicts of young vs. old (and how this changes in a world where lifespans are up to 200 or more years), those for and against technology, and the things that arise from living in a matriarchal society. I loved Johnson’s vision of art in the future, how it may evolve as more advanced technology comes along. I find the exploration of that so important, because as teens grow up, we face more and more scorn for the technology we use. It seems adults see only our faces turned down at our screens— but they have no context to grasp the enormity of what we may be doing, the things we can create that they couldn’t dream of (and sometimes still can’t!). To be sure, there are things to be lost as technology comes in, but art is not one of them. As much as this book delved into other things, however, it did have enough dystopian aspects to it that it sort of felt like the dystopia I’d been waiting to read— It wasn’t in the US, contact with other countries was a thing, all of the characters were people of color, and the world had evolved to a place where there was no longer an assumed sexual orientation. There is sort of a love triangle, but polyamory is so accepted that it’s almost not even a thing.
Although I loved the world Johnson created, I do have a few critiques of it. While I liked that it was set in a matriarchy, I disliked the fact that this meant there was still a large emphasis on the gender binary. I also would have loved to see, like, an asexual character or a transgender one. Although Enki makes a good point about how the matriarchy oppresses men, I have to think it would affect non-binary and trans people just as negatively. And although the sexual freedom of this world was fabulous to see in a YA, I think it would’ve been cool to see how asexual people dealt with it. I have also seen critiques of the representation of Brazilian culture, which I recommend to anyone planning to read this.
As I made my way through The Summer Prince, I found myself alternatively whizzing and crawling through the pages. It was all good, but at times there was too much of the good. Though only 289 pages, I felt at times that I was making my way through a book twice its size. It read a bit like an epic classic. The language was rich, the world well-structured, and it was teeming with the truths of humanity. I heard a quote recently that was something like: “the purpose of art is to take something unfathomable and present it simply.” That’s exactly what Johnson does every single page of The Summer Prince.
The story wasn’t exactly plot-driven, so the last quarter came as a surprise– it was not where I saw the book going at all, and instead of it being a nice break from predictability, I felt like I’d just suffered a case of whiplash. But the ending made up for it all, and I am so glad I stuck with it.
I think it’s a book older teens and adults will enjoy, and I hope that everyone will be exposed to it: It’s truly groundbreaking. I can’t speak for adult fiction, but I’ve never seen anything like it in YA. I seriously cannot cram everything I love about into this tiny little review. I could write a 20 page analysis and still not cover everything that is incredible and mind-boggling about it. Just— go out and read it, and love it, and then make all your friends read it, and then come back and freak out with me with me over how good it was.
Or, yanno, you could enter our Giveaway of THE SUMMER PRINCE 🙂 (open to US residents only).
We’ll be interviewing Alaya Dawn Johnson on Friday– if you have something you’d like us to ask her, tweet it to us at @thegayya!
Review written by Vee Signorelli, co-admin of GayYA.org.