Book Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

By Eileen Fontenot

13453104DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: 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, they 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 passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel with leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

MY TWO CENTS: As readers, we experience the yearlong events of The Summer Prince through the eyes of the protagonist, June Costa, a waka (under 30) artist who is growing up in a lush oasis in a post-apocalyptic Brazil. She and her closest friend, Gil, become enamored with the new Summer King, Enki, who is from the verde, the poverty-stricken part of the city. What begins as a rebellious lark – being a grafiteiro, making public art in support of Enki (who is a figurehead for the Aunties who really run the city and is destined to give his life in choosing a new Queen) – leads to a game of higher stakes for June. She grapples with many adult issues – being in a love triangle, struggling with self identity and parents’ expectations, grappling with unjust grandes (the society’s elders) and their traditions, and ultimately being a force that will decide the direction Palmares Três will take in the future. Will the youth rise up and overthrow the corrupt elders and begin a new era that balances humanity with technology?

This is not a pat, easy coming-of-age novel. June is not altogether sympathetic, but most of her actions are understandable. She is portrayed, especially early on in the book, as a somewhat self-centered youth, bent on fame and the coveted Queen’s Award, which is awarded to the best young artist in the city. She must decide just what is she willing to sacrifice to become famous, to create, to win. As she gets involved deeper and deeper with Enki, she must choose to be cowed by the Aunties’ pressure to conform or to help facilitate real change within the city.

Although the book discusses the effects of extreme technology and bio-modifications on humans’ bodies, it does so in a somewhat oblique way. Johnson chooses to focus more on June’s personal struggle with her mother and step-mother and the death of her father, the sacrifices she makes for her art and the love she has for both Enki as a lover and Gil as a friend, while accepting that both Enki and Gil also love each other. June comes to realize that even though you may lose the ones you love the most, they can still be with you in spirit – through what they have left behind in your beloved city, with its music, knowledge and history.

We’d also like to note that while Johnson’s novel received lots of praise when it released in 2013, it was also criticized by some for its portrayal of Brazil and its culture. For that view, please see this post by Ana Grilo, a Brazilian living in the UK and half of The Book Smugglers team.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be wonderful for an older teen book talk, especially for those who create art or are interested in it. (I suggest older teens because there are some sex scenes, and the book’s themes are for more mature minds.) Wakas of Palmares Três love body art, so talk leaders could pair the book discussion with a make your own temporary tattoo craft. A type of LED sign features very prominently in the climax, so if you’re feeling particularly adventurous or techy, have the teens collaborate on their own sign, which then could be hung in your teen space.

Facilitators could take a few other tacks with their talk, one of which would be discussing the types of love that can be experienced – platonic, familial, romantic, even the respect you come to have for a frenemy – who is embodied in Bebel, June’s talented rival for the Queen’s Award. Teens may want to share their thoughts on romance – the types of conflict they’ve experienced or what things they have done in pursuit of love. If the members of your group want to share mistakes they’ve made, that may help their peers understand they are not alone. Teens who have lost a parent may also benefit from joining in a book talk of The Summer Prince. June loses her beloved father before most of the events of the novel, and it is a recurring theme throughout the book – her difficult acceptance of his death and her mother’s resulting remarriage to an Auntie. Teens in “step” households can share their struggles and successes with living in blended families.

If these ideas don’t grab you, facilitators may choose to ask the teens to discuss their thoughts on the future of technology and how or if they would choose to strike a harmonious balance between the two. Who in the group identifies as more “techy” and who identifies as more of an “analog” type person? Where do they foresee technology going in the future, when they are adults? What sort of restraints should be put on tech, if any? What sort of bio-mods would they want implanted in their bodies? What would they want these mods to do? Communicate with computers directly without a visible interface? Change their appearance? Give them an unusually long life?

AUTHOR (from her website): Alaya (rhymes with “papaya”) lives, writes, cooks, and (perhaps most importantly) eats in Mexico City. Her literary loves are all forms of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and the occasional highbrow novel. She plays the guitar badly and eats very well, particularly during canning season. She has published five novels for adults and young adults, including The Summer Prince, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2013.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT The Summer Prince, visit your local library or bookstore. You can also check out goodreads.com, indiebound.com, amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.

 

fontenot headshotEileen Fontenot is a recent graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston. She works at a public library and is interested in community service and working toward social justice. A sci-fi/fantasy fan, Eileen was formerly a newspaper writer and editor.

3 comments on “Book Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

  1. Pingback: Libros Latin@s: The Summer Prince | Editing Librarian

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