By Alaya Dawn Johnson
Available now from Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)
June lives in Palmares Três, a city in a futuristic Brazil that considers itself the most beautiful city in the world. It's ruled by matriarchs, with a ceremonial king elected every five years to reaffirm the queen with his death. June and her fellow young citizens aren't entirely happy with their government. But the young have even less power in a world where people live to be hundreds of years old. Enki, the new Summer King, wants to use his death to make a difference. June wants to make art.
THE SUMMER PRINCE is not a perfect novel. Gil is June's best friend and Enki's lover, making him pretty darn important to the emotional arc of the novel. But he simply looks pretty and dances. His character is never shaded in. Then there's the fact that June's art often seems pretty lame to me. I have to admit, performance art is not my thing, and June leans to the performance side. Things like her tree of light, pictured on the cover, and a portrait of her stepmother come to life in my mind, but some of her more important works seem more laughable. Then there's the fact that Alaya Dawn Johnson is balancing a lot: art, family, friends, class, politics. THE SUMMER PRINCE can swing wildly in focus.
But I really, truly enjoyed THE SUMMER PRINCE. It has a lot in common with the dystopian trend, but it's more closely aligned with science fiction. There's hacking, robots, genetic modification, and debate about how much is too much when it comes to blending man and machine. Johnson clearly thought about the details of how her world worked. She does manage to make it at least somewhat plausible that a city would practice regular blood sacrifice. (And that is no mean feat.) There's also a nice blend of familiar and unfamiliar social mores. Some people are rich, some aren't. Teenage pregnancy is even more ostracized. Bisexuality is no big thing.
June is a terrific main character. She's got a long way to go, as some of the other characters point out. She's self centered and arrogant, although her experiences help her to think more about her world and empathize with other people. She's consumed by her passion for art, but often out of touch with her own motives. At the beginning of THE SUMMER PRINCE, she's a brat. But working with Enki and being thrust into politics forces her to mature. I did like the brief glimpses into Enki's point of view, though I found them confusing at first. (I read the Netgalley Kindle ARC and the formatting was atrocious, so those bits may not be confusing at all in the final book.)
I think THE SUMMER PRINCE will satisfy science fiction and dystopian fans. THE SUMMER PRINCE is filled with vivid, sensuous images and the inescapable tension between young and old, progress and tradition. June lives in Palmares Três, a city on the brink of rebellion, and she may be the person to push it over the edge.