Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book: The Summer Prince
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Published: 2013
Source: ARC borrowed from a friend

In the future Brazilian city of Palmares Tres, they have a tradition. Every five years, they elect a king, who lives and revels for a year before he is sacrificed on the altar, and in his sacrifice, he selects the queen who will rule the city. This has been the tradition for hundreds of years, and nobody questions it anymore.

June isn't concerned with politics, even though her stepmother is an Auntie, a powerful political figure. She isn't concerned with anything except her best friend, Gil, and making art. She may be a waka, disdained and overlooked because she's under thirty, but she knows that her work can force people to sit up and take notice.

But when Gil falls in love with Enki, the new Summer King, June finds herself dragged along. Because Enki wants people to sit up and take notice, particularly of the injustices in their city, and June's art is fast becoming his favorite way to do it.

The copy I got had no summary or teaser on the back, so all I had to go on was the cover. When I picked this up, I vaguely thought I was in for another cookie-cutter dystopia, or possibly a faerie-world romance, and I prepared to put it down in 50 pages. (Cynical much?) By the time fifty pages rolled around, you couldn't've pried it out of my hands with dynamite.

Yes, some of the same elements are here. Palmares Tres definitely counts as a dystopia. There is a star-crossed romance, albeit one which includes a number of gutsy choices. There's sparkly tech and glittery parties. But make no mistake, this book is unique.

I'll start with the sexaulity. Not just the characters who have sex, but the  sexual orientation. Bisexuality seems to be the norm - June's mother remarried a woman after her father died, June divested herself of her virginity with her friend Gil and flirts with other female characters, and Enki, well, Enki sleeps with everybody. And it ain't no thang. I loved this. I loved it a lot, especially since Enki falls in love with both Gil and June and both are treated as valid and equally powerful at the same time. That's refreshing in the "one boy for-evah!!" culture that we seem have to going in YA right now.

Then there's the setting. How often do you see a South American setting in YA sci-fi? Or for that matter, any setting that's not basically Western European? I'll tell you: hardly ever. And while the book mentions that climate change has made the Tropic of Cancer just about the only livable portion of the planet, Palmares Tres is not a Western European city transplanted into the jungle. It has deep and flourishing roots in Brazilian culture. I got the sense of enormous richness in this setting, as if I could go digging around for several more books and still find new and interesting things.

Most of the elements I'm gushing about here fall into the "Wow! That's new and fresh and very cool!" category. But I want to emphasize that these are all backed up with crackerjack writing. The book is not a romance, even though it seems to be and will probably be sold as such. It's about politics and corruption and ageism and oppression and art and love (yes, even though it's not a romance). It's about a young woman beginning to understand that if she wants to affect the world, it's going to affect her right back.

According to the author's website, this is a standalone, so I am pouting to myself and hoping to see more YA from Johnson in the near future.

No comments: