The Summer Prince
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.
There are so many vivid, subversive, shivery things about this book hidden just under the surface. I’ll be outlining these things below so that any potential readers will be prepared for them, but more importantly, to make sure you all know: put The Summer Prince on your TBR. I don’t care how it gets there as long as it does.
The diversity that drew me to this book in the first place never fails to show up in the most unlikely places. The most obvious way that it’s demonstrated is in the government of Palmares Três itself: it’s almost completely matriarchal. That might not be diversity in itself, but it definitely subverts “gender norms” in today’s society and represents the voices of women. The city’s ruled by a queen, with officials called Aunties who support her. Men have far less political power – in fact, almost none at all, because the apocalypse leading to the founding of Palmares Três was supposedly brought down by the foolishness of men. Though this certainly isn’t the balanced society we’d all like to have, it’s intriguing to see women in power. Also, this society isn’t heteronormative. In other words, it doesn’t view heterosexual couples as the norm. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist’s (June’s) mother has remarried after father’s death (that’s not a spoiler, trust me) – but she’s married a woman. And that’s perfectly normal. It’s fine. Enki, the title character of The Summer Prince is bisexual and polyamorous to some extent. That’s 0kay with everyone as well. Then there’s the ethnic diversity – which I suppose is pretty hard to avoid if a book is set in futuristic Brazil. Many characters are mixed-race or implied to be, and cultures mingle in the city freely.
Yes, yes. So much yes.
But besides diversity, which I love in and of itself, the book is well-done. It’s got all the trappings of a great novel. It’s raw and powerful and pulsing with light. I’m unashamedly, infinitely glad that I found it.
First: themes. I know half of you are already rolling your eyes because who cares about themes, right? So many books end up preaching to the reader about themes and it honestly ruins things sometimes. But when these kinds of messages are executed well, they hit hard. And The Summer Prince, if we’re thinking of it that way, is a punch to the gut. Revolving around issues like love, death, grief, and technology (I know, the last one seems like the odd one out), June’s first-person present-tense narration never pushes morals at the reader, but her observations, her frightening moments of vulnerability, communicate them anyway.
Next: the writing style is great. I know, I know, my nitpicky nature is showing. But seriously, this imagery is awe-inspiring, even a little frightening at times. Palmares Três thrums with danger and screaming beauty, and every sentence is piercing. There’s not much analysis I can do on this, because it really speaks for itself – let’s call it distinctive. It’s edgy and punchy and feels a little violent for some unknowable reason. It’s not afraid to be colorful. It glows, it blares, and it lives. But it might be too much for some readers. I’m sure that there are places online where you can read an excerpt (in fact, it’s in the “Look Inside” on The Summer Prince‘s Amazon page), and that’s probably the best way to figure out if the writing style appeals to you.
The characterization of this – especially in Enki, June, and Gil – was layered and lovely. Again, they’re all so original that it’s hard to explain them, particularly Enki. He’s just one of those people, I suppose, if I were to put it really ineloquently. June’s a wonderful narrator as well, vulnerable in all the right scenes and almost too honest about what she thinks. Her passion for art affects her entire worldview, and this was a great deviation from many YA heroines. This means the character dynamics are also realistic and fascinating. Gil, June, and Enki’s relationship was something not frequently seen in YA – or even novels, period. It was a much-needed representation of polyamory (although I’m not sure how accurate of a relationship it was, since I’m not familiar with polyamory as a whole). But it was a good reminder of “yes, this exists” and a very good fit to the characters that the author had created.
There are a few issues, though, as with most books. Some readers might find the sexual content a little overwhelming – the characters certainly are never afraid to talk about/venture into sex. I’ve read some mixed reviews saying that the sex factor was what killed the book for them. However, I was fine with it. Also, the mingling plot threads sometimes didn’t mesh as cohesively as I’d prefer – the summer king conflict seems like a whole other thing when juxtaposed with the political conflicts occurring in the city.
On the whole, though, this is fabulous, and a very necessary diverse read. So many dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels focus only on, say, North America, and it was great to get this brazenly beautiful perspective on what happened to Brazil.
The main character of The Summer Prince is June Castro a 17 year old student and artist in one of the more privileged sectors (sector 8). At the beginning of the story she and her best friend Gil, are religiously following the the Summer prince competition as they are desperately in love with the candidate from Verde (the poorest sector) Enki. Despite the fact that Enki toes the line of what is acceptable for Summer princes– by bringing to plight of the Verde into the city’s consciousness– he is elected Summer King of Palmares Três!
Palmares Três is run by a brutal matriarchy, the government is made up of Aunties and a Queen, who follow a doctrine created by the first queen who survived the fall out. The doctrine mixes Catholicism and Indigenous Meso American religion, and the long and the short of it is: every year a new king is elected by the people and every winter he will be sacrificed to save the city (as the first queen sacrificed her husband during the fall out).
First thing that I love about this book (I already mentioned) is that it takes place in Latin America. Something that should be evident because of that, but often times isn’t: all of the characters in this story are of color. ALL OF THEM. this is a beautiful and complex story about people of color. Sorry to repeat myself, it’s just such a rarity I want to be sure I drive the point home. Enki, who is considered the most beautiful character by June (and all of Palmares Três for that matter), is a black man with dreadlocks. June herself is not particularly beautiful, and also has some of the lightest skin tones the Aunties allow. Which is a pretty dramatic reversal of the racialized construction of beauty, and one I enjoyed quite a lot.
At the celebration of Enki’s kingship June and Gil are dancing together, Gil is such a good dancer that as soon as Enki enters the room Gil is all that he sees, Gil goes to Enki and falls to his knees, and then Enki and Gil kiss. I didn’t have my queer reading glasses on so it took me a second to realize that Enki and Gil were being gay together. And once I realized that was happening other things came into queer focus (I’m just so used to heteronormativity that I was painting everyone as straight), June’s mother is married to an Auntie! Also none of these characters are “gay” or “lesbian,” Gil has been involved with women, June’s mother was in love with June’s father, Enki and June fall in love and have sex later on in the book: sexual orientation is fluid and nameless. And as a queer reader is was really cool to see.
Also June and Enki become romantically involved not after Gil and Enki’s relationship but during, not like Enki is cheating on Gil, like Enki is getting into multiple consensual relationships. Uh huh, that’s right, this book also features polyamorous relationships! Before Enki and June start being intimate they are artistic collaborators and as they become closer Gil tells June that if they become romantic it would be ok with him. When June, still nervous that Gil might be upset, tells him that the she and Enki have kissed it’s not that Gil doesn’t mind, he’s excited! He’s worried about Enik and believes that June can help keep an eye out for him when Gil cannot. And in a similar situation June is comforted that Gil can be with Enik when she cannot. They have joyous overlapping relationships void of jealousy, if only it was that easy in real life…
Another aspect of this book I enjoyed was it’s exploration of defiance and rebellion. June is an artist, she explores many mediums throughout the book, but one of her first artistic expressions (and the one that’s discussed the most) is graffiti. June goes through great lengths to sneak to do graffiti without getting caught. Enki is constantly toeing or straight up pushing the line of is acceptable King behavior to expose inequalities and corruption in Palmares Três. And June struggles with how much she is willing to give up to do that same. I thought it was really honest and interesting to have a character wrestle with the risks of fighting against the government. June is a person of privilege who has the opportunity to rise to a position of influence, and instead of instantly and easily joining the good fight, she wants desperately to succeed within the institutions that exist. I think a lot of young people will relate to June’s journey to resistance, because she’s so attached to the status quo, it’s a lovely story arch for young people to travel.
Also, I couldn’t find a way to seamlessly incorporate this, but June masterbates and it’s not odd or shameful: she just has a good time, topless in the sun, it’s great. All in all I thought this book well written, compelling, exciting, and covered a lot of worth wild ground. I highly recommend it!