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Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

by ◊ 2 years ago 2 Comments Switch View

thesummerprinceA 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.

-cover and synopsis courtesy 

Atmospheric Analysis: This is a lovely cover, visually striking and nicely capturing the magic of Palmares Tres. It’s quite a bit darker in person than the image is online, though. I’m happy (very!) that June Costa, our heroine, is not whitewashed–but she’s still fairly difficult to see.

Planetary Class: Hmm. Is literary political sci-fi a sci-fi subgenre? If not, let’s make it one.

Mohs Rating: The Summer Prince rates as a 5.5 on the Mohs–Palmares Tres is a world of futurology based mostly on plausible speculative science (nanotechnology, body modification, and cyberpunk-type life extension).

Viability Rating: Johnson’s world is seamless and carefully crafted. Each speculative extrapolation has a textual source to justify it, and justify it well.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Like many modern YA works, The Summer Prince is told in first-person present tense, but it’s distinguished by its conceptual sophistication (divided into seasons, not chapters), its alternating voices (June’s narrative is intercut by passages in Enki’s voice) and its lyrical beauty. The prose is quite lovely.

Expanded Report: The Summer Prince is a lovely book–in some ways, precisely what many adult readers of YA have been seeking. The story of June Costa, an artist in the far post-apocalyptic city of Palmares Tres, and Enki, the summer king who steals her heart, it’s diverse, sophisticated, and written in lovely, lurid prose. The world of this far-future Brazil is perfectly conceptualized; led by a council of Aunties and a queen who is selected by the temporary king once per decade, Johnson’s world shows its roots in a thousand different, subtle ways. The power balance is so because of a plague which long ago decimated the male population. The society has an interesting split between the young and the old due to artificially enhanced lifespans. And death is on everyone’s mind–not just because euthanasia here is necessarily permitted but also because the elected king is sacrificed at the end of his reign for the good of his city.

Against this backdrop, we learn of Enki–hunky, enigmatic king–and the people who love him. June, a budding artist, isn’t alone in her admiration. Not only do many other young wakas love him, but none more than Gil, June’s best friend. And so we have a love triangle, but a subversion of your typical YA love triangle situation. This is the story of a girl and two boys–but the two boys love one another.

Issues of sexuality are rendered with a deft hand; it’s accepted and unremarked upon in this world, and not only are both Enki and Gil bisexual, but June’s mother, as well. Likewise, racial and cultural diversity in this speculative framework are exceedingly well-handled. We meet an older Japanese diplomat, who paints a vivid picture of a Japan where the people have, through bodily modification, transcended their flesh.

In this way, and in terms of pure description, that the setting–and the novel–soars. Palmares Tres feels real, sparkling and gritty all at once. It’s the type of setting that you dream about days after you put the book down. Nice work by Johnson, here.

I was less convinced by some other aspects of the narrative–namely the characters. June was a more believable adolescent than some protagonists written by authors who have primarily worked in adult speculative fiction, though her emotional register felt, at times, a touch off. But other characters were a bit more sketchily drawn, particularly Gil, June’s best friend and Enki’s lover. I never quite found myself invested in him, and so Enki’s dedication to the boy (and June’s) was a bit puzzling.  And though June was better-drawn, the novel’s ultimate conclusion seemed to come about through external factors rather than any fate of June’s own making. It was a bit of a deus ex machina–leading to an ending that was just a touch too pat.

But I suspect that the biggest hesitation readers will have over The Summer Prince is in its very narrative density. The plot is diffuse and scattered, and the speculative elements–worldbuilding and backstory–come with no hand-holding at all. It’s a hard book, complex and twisty. Johnson reminds me most of adult speculative fiction writers like Marge Piercy and Kelley Eskridge. At times, I struggled to put the pieces of the universe together, and I wonder if young readers will, likewise.

But for readers who enjoy such sophisticated composition–used to highlight a gorgeous setting and intriguing premise–there is a lot to love in The Summer Prince. It comes out in March, and it’s available for preorder from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.

About the Author


Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at View all posts by Phoebe »

Discussion - 2 Comments:

  1. I can’t wait to put the pieces together myself. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

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  2. I’ve got to say that as a YA reader (I don’t touch adult fiction) I recognized the density of the narrative but I didn’t struggle with it at all — maybe because I was so swept up in the world. You’re right: the world is so real. I absolutely loved it.

    As for Gil, it sort of surprises me to heart that you weren’t invested in him, though I can see it; I think for me, he came alive best when June and Gil’s friendship were highlighted. I loved them together.

    The climax is definitely a little contrived… but I didn’t care once the final pages came. The ending broke my heart. And then I went back to the front and read the first nine lines… so ineffably sad/beautiful/heartwrenching.

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