Book Review: The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

I could have sworn that I reviewed this book when I first read it, but when I searched my archives, I discovered that I hadn’t. It might be because every time I try to talk about The Summer Prince, the result is usually a bunch of flaily arm gestures and some inarticulate noises, which doesn’t convey very well to text. Sadly, flapping hands excitedly in the air also isn’t a very helpful review for people interacting with me talking about this book in person, although they can get the general gist of what I’m trying to convey.

Most of my conversations about The Summer Prince with people who have read the book go something like this:

Me: That book.

Them: So good.

Me: I know. Agh. So good.

Them: With the thing! And then the…and the other thing…and just.

Me: So good.

Them: And then…but…AGH.

Me: I KNOW.

So here’s what you need to know about The Summer Prince, in a nutshell. It’s a retelling of the Summer King tradition, set in a futuristic city called Palmares Tres, built after a global social collapse. The city is matriarchal, run by a Queen and a series of high-ranking Aunties, but the Summer King has the privilege of choosing the Queen, and he’s elected by the populace. Only this year’s Summer Prince, Enki, has a few tricks up his sleeve, and won’t be going quietly into that good night.

The first thing about Palmares Tres that’s amazing is that this is both a conservative and totally free and open society; Johnson really captures the fact that futuristic societies can take a lot of different forms, and that being open about things like sexuality doesn’t necessarily mean a society is progressive. All kinds of relationships are represented here, people are much less judgmental about polyamory and people who are promiscuous, prominent characters are bisexual, the society has marriage equality.

But it’s also a place with immense class stratifications and rigid restrictions on physical appearance. People are expected to get gene modifications to make them conform with the standard, right down to modifications to lighten their skin, which make Enki, a dark-skinned teen (his mother was a pregnant immigrant who entered the city too late for fetal modifications), stand out radically. And this is a community that is deeply suspicious of technology, and willing to go to great lengths to protect itself from new tech. Despite the fact that Palmares Tres itself is a miracle of technology in many ways, it relies on 100-year-old systems and the administration refuses to recognise that this could be dangerous for the city and her residents.

Socially, The Summer Prince is a complex narrative and commentary on love, race, sexuality, and power, especially for teens. In a world where people routinely live to over 200, young people are at a profoundly disadvantaged social position, not treated seriously until they reach at least 30 or older. Wakas, as they are known, are the bottom of the social pyramid, just as the people who work among the algae vats at the bottom of the city that lend it life are ignored even though they’re key to the survival of the whole city.

As a waka, our heroine June is struggling to establish herself as an artist, and she’s walking the tightrope of coming of age, questioning her society, and trying to decide what she is willing to sacrifice to get the life and career she wants. The Summer Prince tests her resolve as she confronts things she hasn’t been forced to think about before, thanks to her life of relative privilege high in the tiers of Palmares Tres, where the most powerful Aunties live. Will she turn her back on politics to get ahead as an artist, or will she defy pressure to make a statement?

Johnson integrates aspects of Brazilian tradition, including the rich fusion of Catholicism and candombl√©, as well as the mixture of Portuguese, Japanese, and native traditions that characterise the nation. It’s a complex and fascinating society now, and that holds true hundreds of years in the future as well, where societies have been forced to make tough choices to protect themselves from danger. While the grandes may be convinced they are making the right choices to keep the city and her residents safe, the wakas are not so certain, and the archaic Summer Prince ritual may prove to be the spark of reform for the city.

This is also a deeply emotional and intensely personal text; Johnson’s characters are beautifully developed, rich, and multifaceted, and much of the book is a journey of heartbreak. All of them are forced to give up important things over the course of the text, and to confront some conflicted feelings within themselves about their own lives, sexuality, and society. These are standard themes for coming-of-age novels, of course, but Johnson handles them really well and adds layers to them through the exploration of race and sexuality, often in very explicit terms. This is a book not just about growing up, but about identity.

And it’s a very lyrical book as well, with lush descriptions of Palmares Tres and the surrounding environment, the scenes that the characters encounter, and the art they create. The Summer Prince is highly immersive, taking you deep into a world that has been well-built with ample room for exploration. The Summer Prince is about art, love, and rebellion, and it takes you on a roller-coaster ride through these themes with colourful text so alive that it’s almost tangible, as though you could tumble into the pages of the book and find yourself on the paths of Tres Palmares, looking out across the bay, dancing with Enki in a room with a floor made of glass.