Review: The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn JohnsonEvery five years the futuristic enclosed city of Palmares Tres, in what was Brazil, elects a summer king. He is beautiful and beloved — and at the end of his year, he is sacrificed to choose a new Queen. Best friends June and Gil have never questioned this custom until they help get Enki elected, and fall in love with him.

I am blown away by how much Johnson packs into this under-300-page novel. Love and friendship and family, the conflict between old and young when people live well into their third century, technology and its discontents, class and privilege, art and its revolutionary power. Oh, and this is a world ruled by women, because the founders of Palmares Tres believed men were the cause of the war that flattened most of the planet. So there’s an underlying gender conflict, too.

And when I say this story is about love, I should mention that in Palmares Tres, bisexuality is the norm, such that it isn’t even remarked upon by the characters or the text. This book is explicitly about desire and sexuality, but it never feels base or gratuitous. June and Gil and Enki love each other, and sex is an expression of that love, the same way art is. (It’s an odd comparison, but it felt very Weetzie Bat in that way.) It was such a relief to read a story in which the love triangle isn’t a competition (and certainly not two boys fighting over a girl), and no one expects One True Wuv 4-Eva.

A confusing first few chapters is the sign of quality worldbuilding: it means the world is deep and contradictory, and the characters inhabit it too fully to exposit all its rules in an awkward “learning our history” classroom scene. Johnson’s worldbuilding is astounding; she is worthy of your trust through that confusion.

There is no sequel planned, and thank goodness for no clumsy cliffhangers. I want to spend more time in Palmares Tres, but I hope, if Johnson feels the same, that she’ll tell a story in which June, Gil, and Enki are only background players. I loved them, but for me the world was the star of the show, and I want to see facets of it that these characters can’t show me.

By the way, I hate to reduce a book this substantial to a checklist, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that here we have an author of color writing a YA novel about bisexual characters of color in a non-European society, published by a major house (Scholastic). That’s a greatest hits list of holes in the YA publishing field. Read The Summer Prince because it’s amazing, buy it because we need a hell of a lot more like it.

Recommendations: Definitely older YA, shading into adult. As I said, teen sex is explicit and its wisdom unquestioned, the world is confusing at first, and the choices the characters make are mature. I’ve never taught a middle schooler I’d give it to. Teen fans of Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere trilogy or Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Karen Healey, yes! And adult readers of science fiction, if you want something shorter than you’re used to with plenty to feel and chew on, I’d love to hear what you think.

Also reviewed by: Phoebe North at Intergalactic Academy, Finding Wonderland, and Confessions of a Bibliovore

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One Response to Review: The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

  1. Sheila Ruth says:

    Really great review; you’ve done a great job of expressing all that’s great about this book. I like that you pointed out that some confusion in the beginning is actually a good thing. I remember reading an article a while back (I don’t remember where) that one of the difficulties non-science fiction readers have when trying to read science fiction is that science fiction readers expect to have to puzzle things out at the beginning. Of course, worldbuilding is important even in realistic or historical fiction, but it usually has more of a base of familiarity for the reader to hang on to in the beginning. Anyway, I totally agree that this book is worth sticking with long enough to learn your way around the world.

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