Book Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince is Alaya Dawn Johnson’s first young adult novel. Set hundreds of years in the future in the imagined city of Palmares Tres in Brazil, the novel follows seventeen-year-old June Costa, a girl who calls herself “the best artist in Palmares Tres.” When June meets Enki, the newly elected Summer King and a fellow artist, they work together to create works of art the likes of which no one in their city has ever seen. Meanwhile, tension grows as more and more people push back against the government’s severe restrictions on new technology.

This book has many layers to it, which Johnson does a good job of weaving together. First, there’s the narrative of June’s personal growth, as she struggles to figure out what her values are and how she should act on them. Then there’s the story of Enki, the Summer King who will reign for a year, only to be sacrificed at the end of it, and his relationship with June. June’s best friend, Gil, also develops feelings for Enki, and the relationship they form is important to the story as well.

Lastly, there is the unrest in the city as many of its residents act out against the government’s strict regulations on technology. Seem like there’s a lot going on? There is, but Alaya Dawn Johnson does a good job of handling these different aspects.

Another strength of Johnson’s in The Summer Prince is her ability to create compelling, diverse characters. While June Costa is not immediately likeable—she’s very selfish and cowardly at times—she is all the more interesting because of her flaws. June is also extremely confident in her artistic abilities, at times annoyingly so, but it is actually quite refreshing to read a YA book with a female heroine who embraces and shows off her talent instead of downplaying it.

Enki and Gil are also well-written, with Gil’s loyalty and Enki’s passion on display in full force in every scene they are in. I also appreciated the way that Johnson wrote the relationship between Enki, Gil, and June. Although the two boys are in a relationship, and June develops feelings for Enki, this novel never falls into annoying love triangle territory. There is a lot of love between the three characters, but never jealousy or a feeling of competition.

The setting of The Summer Prince is also compelling because this book takes place outside of the US, which is not something you see much in YA dystopian/futuristic books. Not only does it take place outside of the US, but the characters are aware of what is going on in the rest of the world, so the readers get glimpses of that as well. Palmares Tres has a distinct culture, and it is described very well.

Still, there are aspects of this book that are confusing at times. For one thing, it is not clear until late in the story why, exactly, the Summer King has to die. We know that there is a complicated system of elections (one that is never fully explained, unfortunately), and that a young male is elected every five years, and then killed at the end of his year-long term.

At first, I thought there was some sort of magical element going on, that the city literally needed blood in order to function. That’s not the case, however, and the book would have made a lot more sense if this had been laid out clearly from the start. This is not the only plot point that is kept hidden until very late in the book, and I’m still not sure why these pieces of information were withheld for so long.

I also had a hard time imagining the layout of the city of Palmares Tres in my head. Something about it just didn’t click for me, and I’m not sure if this was a problem on my end or what. As someone who likes to be able to picture things very clearly when reading, this was sometimes frustrating. Still, I’m mostly willing to overlook this because of my connection to the characters and the overall plot.

The governmental structure in The Summer Prince is an interesting one, as it is not exactly totally corrupt like in many YA books in this genre, but it has problems. The sacrificial murder aside, this government actually felt a little more realistic than the governments in some dystopian novels, simply because it actually functions and takes care of its citizens. It is a matriarchal government, formed because of a plague that at one point almost wiped out all men. It is also indicated that men are primarily to blame for the destruction of the world as it was before (at least, that is what June believes).

I know some people will have problems with it, but I actually felt like the book was sending a more “absolute power corrupts absolutely” message than an “all men are evil we must sacrifice the young ones” message. The government is not really portrayed positively, so I’m not so sure we should be quick to label this plot point as “problematic.”

While there are some flaws in this story, overall I found it to be an engaging, compelling read with a lot of heart. I was definitely invested in the characters by the end, and if there was ever a sequel I would pick it up without hesitation.

I do want to make a quick on note this story’s very frank and open discussion of sex and sexuality. The characters in the books are pretty sexually active and open about their habits. While I didn’t have any problems with it, I know that it might make some uncomfortable. This is probably a book more suited for older readers, maybe 16 and up.

I would recommend this book to fans of dystopian fiction and speculative fiction, and anyone who is looking for an entertaining book with a wonderfully diverse cast of characters.

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