090 – The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince coverA heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Três 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 Três 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.

THE SUMMER PRINCE: A REVIEW IN < UL >



THE GOOD


  • Most Things
    Specifically:

  • The Heroine
    June was a great protagonist. Like a real-live no-irony I-shit-you-not great protagonist. She has drive, she has agency, she’s smart, but more interestingly, she fucks up so many times, and she changes throughout the course of the novel. She’s wrong and she changes. I love when protagonists are proven wrong. I know it’s a weird thing to get excited about but god it feels so rare, you know? So many books treat their narrator/protagonist’s perceptions as fact, like their truth is world truth and it’s just your shit luck if you don’t happen to agree with them, but with Summer Prince? June’s truth is June’s truth, and June is a 100% fallible human teenager.

    That’s not to say that she doesn’t have good qualities too, because of course she does. She’s ambitious and talented and idealistic and confident and she wants justice for everyone; she’s definitely the hero, and I’m not trying to give the impression that all that identifies her are flaws, but to me, those are almost more important? I feel like I can go out and read a bunch of stories where the narrative wants me to find the heroine smart and right and bad ass and that’s genuinely awesome and necessary, but sometimes I want to be able to read about someone who fucks up as much as I would in her situation. I want to read about someone who is selfish like I can be, who isn’t sure if she’d have the balls to sacrifice her dreams to stand up for what is right, but who is still deemed worthy of being the protagonist, you know?

    That’s June.

  • Subversions
    My favorite, thing, right? This sort of goes along with the whole June-being-wrong thing, but I thought it warranted mentioning on its own, because it was particularly surprising and pleasing. One of the bigger issues I had in the beginning of Summer Prince was that June had stereotypically adversarial relationships with all of the female characters of the book – her mother, her step-mother, her sole female schoolmate – and that was pretty irritating because fucking always, right? But Johnson did a wonderful job using that to her advantage – taking the trope of Girls Can’t Be Friends and fraught mother-daughter relationships and ‘you’re not my real parent’ drama and turning it into a source for revelations and compassionate understanding.

    I can’t even express how much I loved what June and Bebel’s relationship turned in to – that June was able to see that Bebel had never really been what June had perceived her as; that they could be rivals, compete and challenge one another, and still be friends.

    I love that June and her mother had a beautiful arc, that in the end both June and the reader were shown how much support had been there for her, even when June didn’t see it.

    I love that June’s step-mother was not an evil witch out to steal her mother’s love and crush June’s free spirit; I love that she loved June and she loved June’s mother, and wanted what was best for them all.

    I love that the Japanese Ambassador whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, was not just some gross dirty perverted politician/plot device, but a person with complicated emotions and motivations, worthy of friendship and compassion.

    I loved a whole lot of this book, ok.

  • The Story
    More like stories, really. The Summer Prince has enough plot to fill three novels, but for once that’s not a criticism. I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, how it moved along revealing layer after layer of intricate conflict beneath what had initially appeared to be a relatively simple premise.

    There is so much going on here, so many more issues being addressed in this ONE book than there were in any twelve I’ve read before it: institutionalized racism and sexism, the struggle between the old and the young, established power and idealism, the rich and the poor, humanity and technology, even patriotism and national perception. Johnson took all of these complicated issues and wove them seamlessly together into this thrumming, vibrant story, full of ideas, yet still completely focused and engaging. And you know what’s even more incredible? It addresses these ideas with nuance.

    I think this is the first dystopian/post-apocalytpic novel I’ve ever read that doesn’t paint its picture in black and white. The axes of oppression are many, and you’re made to see both the pure and the corrupted ideals on both sides. Even the best of intentions can and will be twisted.

    But the book doesn’t settle for waffling OR on cynical solution. June engages with the conundrum of knowing that neither side has all the answers, but that acting on the hope for a different future is still vital and necessary.

    On a similar line of thought, I was mightily impressed by how well The Summer Prince‘s actual dystopia holds up. You’re not left to wonder how the fuck such a batshit system was instituted in the first place; the “how” IS the allegory. The “why” is one of the most important parts. And The Summer Prince is that much more effective and powerful for it.

  • The Writing
    Hey, look what’s showing up on the “pro” side of the list for once. But yeah, the writing is pretty excellent – moody and fluid and evocative and pretty much everything you’d want it to be.

  • Sexuality
    It’s a beautiful thing to read about a society – mostly – free of sexual hangups and repression – where best friends can hook up and look back on it as a fond experience that doesn’t awkward shit up. Where a woman can love and lose her husband, and then later find love again with another woman. Where a guy can be in love with both the heroine and her male best friend at the same time, and it’s not a Thing*. Where teenagers having sex is not the end of the world.

    I really love what Johnson did with this, and I think that her choice to de-stigmatize sexuality in The Summer Prince and portray it in such a fluid, flexible, positive way is in itself as powerful a statement as any of the others she makes more specifically in the book.

    *I do have a bone to pick with this, but we’ll get to that in a bit

THE BAD



  • The Love Triangle
    So I’m very appreciative that this is not a Love Triangle in the traditional sense. There’s no fighting, no backstabbing, no having to choose between boys; it’s (ostensibly) a love triangle purely by virtue of the number of participants involved the relationship. One boy loves two other people, and everyone is totally cool with that. Except that’s where The Summer Prince didn’t quite live up to its promise for me.

    The thing is, our heroine’s best friend, Gil, is supposed to be really important to Summer King Enki. Even more important, romantically, than June. He’s his primary lover, the one he sees most often and takes out to public events, and to the book’s credit, it doesn’t explicitly undermine that. Whenever the occasion arises, Enki speaks very fondly of Gil, and it’s Gil’s safety, not June’s, that the bad guys threaten when they need Enki to cooperate. The book tells us very clearly that Gil and Enki are deeply in love. The problem for me was that the relationship development that we actually see most in the book is between Enki and June. It was a discrepancy between what the book wanted me to think, and what it was actually showing me.

    I mean, I get that the story is told from June’s point of view, and therefore we’re going to get her side of things more than Gil’s, but even so, it would not have been impossible to develop Enki and Gil’s relationship more fully. They barely had any scenes together, and the ones they did have were bare minimum dialogue/character interaction. The book just told us they were dating and they were dancing and Enki really liked Gil and that was that.

    Meanwhile, June and Enki have tons of scenes together all over the city, learning about each others’ pasts and political beliefs and plans for the future, and bonding over art. The majority of the Enki POV interludes we get throughout the novel are focused on June, and they are all directed at her. All of it gave their relationship more depth, more weight.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that Gil’s relationship with Enki felt a bit like lip service. I would have loved to see more of them together. I’d also have liked to see more of Enki, Gil, and June together as a unit. I want to say that both times Gil told June he didn’t mind if she and Enki got together, she denied having feelings for him? Or at least, she didn’t plan on acting on them, and that seems kind of…questionable. Like, I don’t think June ever straight-up told Gil that she and Enki were in a relationship.

    I just feel like there could have been more development there. I’m not saying there should have been a threesome (although, you know, why not?), but a few more scenes actually showing the dynamic between the three of them? Yes please.

  • The Ending – ACTUAL REAL-TYPE SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING IN THIS SECTION
    Ah man, I was really hoping that rebellion road would not lead to the solution that it did. It seems like the forgone conclusion in situations like these is that the hero/heroine should become the new ruler and straighten shit up because they’re the hero, but very fuckin’ rarely are these characters actually qualified to lead a government. I mean seriously, I liked June a lot, but there are probably a lot of other things that go along with being Queen besides Oppressing People, and do we know if she’s any good at those? No, we do not. International diplomacy, security, idk, civil maintenance, anything? Just because you’re a decent person doesn’t mean you’d be a decent ruler, ok? WHY DO THESE BOOKS THINK THAT’S A VIABLE OPTION?

    I guess if we were going to have to do the whole cliche heroine-as-monarch thing, I’d at least like to read the sequel in which June has to learn how to actually be a queen. Or where she tears the whole thing down to give power back to the people. SOMETHING.

  • That Part Where They Samba’d Through a Gang Fight
    They literally did this. What the fuck.

  • Cultural Appropriation
    So I don’t know anything about Brazil, literally nothing about the language or the culture that Johnson draws on to tell her story here, which is why I’m grateful for the internet, and the opportunity to chip away at my ignorance, once article at at time.

    It’s my understanding, from the articles that I’m about to list and link to, that there is a whole mess of shit got wrong in The Summer Prince, when it comes to the language and the depiction of Brazilian culture. Like, this is some Stormdancer-level shit, and that is super disappointing.

    It’s a strange intersection of issues here, because on the one hand, it’s such a rare thing, to find commercially-published diverse YA sci-fi written by an author of color and starring a heroine of color, featuring an almost exclusively POC, LGBT cast, that is also really, really good. On the other, US-centrism and the misuse/appropriation of a culture/people not largely represented in the American publishing market by an American author is a huge goddamn problem in this industry. It’s a complicated situation that I really don’t have the knowledge or experience to speak on. Thus, links:

    Ana, of the Book Smugglers, review
    Ana’s thoughts on The Summer Prince, with a breakdown of some of the more glaring cultural fuckups

    LadyBusiness’ review
    A great analysis from LadyBusiness on The Summer Prince‘s plot and themes, including the representation vs appropriation issue

So yeah, that’s more problematic.

It’s a huge shame, because I would love to enthusiastically, unreservedly shout “FIVE STARS, BEST THING SINCE RASPBERRY SMIRNOFF” from the rooftops. There are so many wonderful things in The Summer Prince, so many important things. BUT. But. Cultural fuckups are a top-level enthusiasm killer, man. It’s hard to recommend that shit without a big fucking warning label.

ROLLING IN THE DEEP, SUMMER PRINCE


We could have, Summer Prince. We could have.

three stars


In the spirit of proper representation, anyone have any recommendations for good sci-fi/fantasy/ya books by Brazillian authors?

 

2 Responses

  1. Eibhlín

    August 19, 2014 9:18 am, Reply

    I was so looking forward to this book right up until the last paragraph or so. I mean, to have a book so close to awesome and inclusive and diverse and then lose it based on cultural appropriation – that really sucks.
    I am happy to see a bisexual poly relationship in YA, which seems like something that pretty much never shows up. And I’m always happy to see PoC protagonists! Hopefully, you can find a book just as good with none of the fuckups ASAP!
    A bit of a stupid question, though – at what point do mistakes on culture become cultural appropriation? Personally, everything outlined here seems more like just mistakes based on lack of research rather than true appropriation (similar to Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely or Holly Black’s Modern Faeries), whereas Stormdancer would strike me as more cultural appropriation. However, I know basically nothing about this topic, so…. Sorry for the stupid question!

    • Cyna Cyna

      August 20, 2014 3:56 pm, Reply

      It’s a good question, and honestly I don’t know how qualified I am to answer that. I wrestled with it a bit myself, because like you, it didn’t strike me as have the same kind of grossness that Stormdancer did. But it’s not MY culture, and I know nothing about it, so in the end I deferred to Ana’s judgement – she dubs it appropriation in her review, and that is good enough for me.

      Plus, I guess there’s always an element of appropriation when it comes to an author telling & selling the story of a culture that isn’t theirs? It may not seem Stormdancer-nasty, but Johnson as an American writer has an element of privilege when it comes to having her vision of Brazil made available to US readers over the works of Brazillian authors, and then touted as a “realistic” and “recognizably Brazillian”, even when it’s absolutely not.

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