Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Review: The Summer Prince

This is a book that I was really hoping to have a chance to read (futuristic Brazil sci-fi? I'm in!) and I was surprised that I found it so quickly at my not-so-local library, although I feel like they either do a better job at getting YA books faster or at least make their new books more visible. And even without already knowing about this book I think I would have picked it up anyway because of how gorgeous the cover is, normally I'm a little leary of putting green and yellow right next to each other (it can make things look sickly really easy) but, if the cover here doesn't fully convey it, it makes the cover just pop and I hope a lot of other people pick it up for either of those reasons.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Summary: 400 years ago the world became a nuclear wasteland and while humanity still survives most of the world does so in the ruins of it’s former glory. One of the few exceptions to this is the city-state of Palmares  Tres, a giant city in modern day Brazil which has thrived because of it's isolation and rules made by all of its ruling ladies. While they resist much technology being created by the outside world they have embraced some of it and become extraordinarily long lived and because of that few young people have any say in anything about their world. Many want their world to change but few succeed in the way that June and Enki manage, her by being a modern artist whose work is compelling and different and him by becoming the Summer King, the highest position any man in the city can hold which occurs once every five years and after a year of power will be ritually killed in order to reaffirm the authority of Palmares Tres' queen. 

The Good: Johnson creates a futuristic setting that is neither dystopian or utopian (that’s actually a dystopia) which helps make it one of the most realistic science-fiction settings I’ve ever come across. This isn’t a little detail either, the struggles and conflicts of the city are the center and heart of this story, it's Enki's reason for becoming the Summer King in the first place, and Johnson succeeds wildly in portraying a city where ordinary people live and are unsure of what future they should follow and where politicians have a mix of their own and everyone else's wishes as their goal. As for all the other parts of the setting, I’m a sucker for a story with strong settings and the way that the technology is integrated into everything and is explained so casually is what really makes the story for me. Johnson creates a setting that is mostly foreign to me but does it with such confidence and vivid descriptions that I had no trouble accepting it* and, once I figured out how the city was laid out, visualizing it. I also loved the kind of art June did, in real life I'm not a big fan of modern art (or post-modern, I'm not completely sure which one hers is) but two things made it work here. One is that I'm simply of tired that nearly every time there's a character in any story whose an artist that they normally sketch or paint, it just gets a bit tedious. And secondly because June's art makes so much sense in this setting, it's wild, it's thought provoking, it makes use of the materials in and around her city. It ends up being a perfect fit with her character, Palmares Tres, and with the entire story.  

The Bad: There was a lot of unfamiliar slang used in the book (I don’t know if it’s real, Brazilian slang or made up for the sake of the book) and I wish that there had been a small glossary in the back since I was never able to pick up on what some of the words meant when they were only used once or twice. I also wish the ending had been a slight bit clearer, I had a few questions which I don't I was supposed to have and just a paragraph or two could have cleared them up (unless I was supposed to have these specific questions in which case obviously the story succeeded). Finally, by the end I had a few problems with how Enki grew and developed. Some people might consider this a spoiler so I shall try to be as vague as possible, Enki does A Thing which ultimately results in a change in character, I'm not exactly sure it can even be called development since he doesn't have full control or choice over changing, and I felt like this short-changed the story in some ways. I'm entirely sure that this was all deliberately done, Enki is supposed to be a tragic character after all, when I remember where he started and the goals he had then, versus what he was like by the very end well, I wish that had been pulled off a little differently.

So for a story with an amazing setting, interesting characters (all of whom are non-white I should note, both due to the gene mods and from growing up in a culture which has more than just American or European influences), and two prominent gay relationships (plus a take on a love triangle which is a bit different than usual) I'm giving this book four out of five stars, plan on buying it someday and plan on checking out Johnson's other works. And while recommending this I'd also like to mention some books that I was reminded of while reading, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zarah the Windseeker which also has a great, vivid setting whose inspiration was completely foreign to me yet I fell in love with due to how confidently Okorafor-Mbachu described it and Karen Healey's The Shattering but for slightly spoilery reasons, it and The Summer Prince have one rather large plot element in common but it's done completely differently. 

*well, except for the one detail of people having children after they turn 50 and much later than that. But, given the passing mention of gene mods and that people’s skin tones must fit into a certain range of colors I can easily hand wave that and say that they just do something either to the uterus or eggs to make this viable. And really, I have just one problem with the technology out of a story which is chock-full of it and is one of the main plot drivers? That’s amazing!

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