Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince takes place in Palmeres Tres, a far-future Brazilian city ruled by women, where every five years a Summer King is elected to help rule for a year. Feted like a rock star, at the end of the year the Summer King selects a new Queen and is killed to guarantee his selection is incorruptible. Part apocalyptic cyberpunk, and part celebration of friendships forged through art, it's a gorgeous, memorable novel.
The action begins when Enki, a wild and beautiful boy from the lower classes, has been selected. Meanwhile, June Costa is a privileged kid who skirts the strict rules of Palmeres Tres with body mods and graffiti that are just this side of illegal. Eventually June develops a relationship with Enki based on creating art.
Johnson has created a fascinating world. PalmeresTres is a vast, pyramid-shaped arcology. Its citizens are stacked according to class, with the government and Queen up on Tier 10 and the lowest class citizens down at the bottom with the Verde. The Verde houses the algae vats which produce hydrogen to run the city. The matriarchal government and religion operate on a blend of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble and Catholicism. The Aunties control is absolute. They have forbidden everything from having skin too light or dark to all sorts of technology that is readily available in cities like Tokyo-10.
Life extension has created a society where the Aunties, with their formal red hair wraps, may operate within the government for a hundred years, while those under thirty have little to no political clout. Johnson’s extrapolations of how life extension will alter future societies aren’t particularly new, but the seriousness of her choices clearly weighs on June. She could be screwing up the next two hundred years of her life. The release valves built into the society for the under 30s – the art contests, their non-voting summer king, and such – are shown in all their complexity. They are both wonderful opportunities and insidious forms of control.
The Summer King fits roughly into the popular YA dystopia genre, or perhaps cyberpunk. Certainly the glimpses the reader gets of the word beyond Palmeres Tres suggests that there are both dystopias and post-singularity cyber humans out there. There was an apocalypse, but it was 400 years ago which makes calling the book a post-apocalypse a bit like calling modern America 700 years post the Black Plague apocalypse. The book actually captures a world far more realistic than both of those extreme – rather like the current developed world, there is both poverty and privilege entwined with the complexities of skin color, class, the accessibility of technology, and gender. It’s really great to encounter a futuristic YA book with personal and political struggles that isn’t a horror show of dystopian tropes.
Johnson makes the world particularly believable by having characters who really feel like they grew up within Palmeres Tres’s science fictional borders. In some books, futuristic mores are viewed through the eyes of characters who have distinctly 20th century American morality. Words like “gay,” “straight,” “bisexual,” “polyamorous” or “monogamous” never occur in the text, because they’re meaningless both in the future society and to June. When June’s goody-goody, straight-A frenemy proposes a three-way, you know we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Because the characters complete belonging to the future, occasionally means more work for readers as they put together the pieces to understand a political system that seems entirely natural to the characters. Imagine if every novel of political intrigue in America required the history of the founding of the country and an explanation of the electoral college that arose naturally within the text. The five year cycles of Summer Kings, who are voted for by the populace, are initially confusing. But the system does absolutely make sense, compared to the twisted logic of any political system. Some YA dystopias are particularly at fault for having a sort of hand-wave quality to “how we got here” or “how this all actually works,” but Johnson has clearly thought long and hard about the structure of this world and the way the many pieces fit together.
Art and its creation are at the heart of the story. June struggles with conflicting feelings of inadequacy as an artist and an abundance of self-confidence. Accusations that she acts like an “entitled” brat manage to be both true and beside the point. June starts the book as self-centered teenager, but through her art and experiences with Enki her empathy and political understanding grows. By the end of the book she’s become a wiser and more caring character. Art is vitally important to Palmares Tres, and every form of it, from programming to clothing design to dance, is shown as both a purely artistic statements and as political ones. Considering how art is generally ignored in speculative fiction, it’s refreshing to see it represented as a valuable and fundamental part of a society. Now that we know that animals make tools and call each other by name, art is really all humans have left that is uniquely ours. But science fiction in particular tends to ignore it.
The focus on art sends the plot down unexpected paths. Because the book is June’s record of the year of Enki’s rule, it has some abrupt transitions, but these seemed to indicate the natural lulls that occur in even the most exciting life. The Summer Prince may not end up with the popularity of some books and it will most certainly be banned somewhere in the U.S. for its sexual and political content, but that doesn’t mean it’s not more inventive and more thought-through than many other YA science-fiction books. The surprising plot, fascinating world, and characters who felt like they really lived in the future combine to make this one of the better YA books to come out in a while.