Sometimes I predispose myself to really love or really hate a book before I read it. I think it’s a great way to live. It made me really good at identifying every single problem with Twilight, and that made the otherwise excruciating read a bit fun. So when I saw that this book was about futuristic Brazil, which in its present form is my favorite of all the countries I’ve been to, I decided I would read it as soon as possible and that I would adore it.
THIS being the book The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Obvs.
First of all, mad cover love. It’s so preeeeeetty! Like, even though I don’t reread books because I have no time, and even though I (sad, I know, but see: I don’t have time to reread and also see: I am in grad school) don’t generally buy books if I’ve already received them in review copy form, I very much want to buy this and also to make everyone read it.
I will say that this book is a bit difficult. The worldbuilding is complex and nuanced, which is excellent, but I’ve gotten so used to so many bad YA dystopias that I forgot that they could be good, like this. So you have to understand that in this world, protagonist June lives in Palmares Três, a “vertical city” built on the site of Palmares, a real community that was founded by freed slaves. If you know anything about the racial dynamics of Brazil (like how they didn’t abolish slavery until 1888, making them the last country in the Americas to do so), you can see how this is a big deal, and Johnson plays on the politics of race and the real thing that matters, the politics of skin tone. In Palmares Três, there is a hierarchical class system, and just like in present Brazil, when Enki, a boy from the verde (for a good metaphor, think of a place we like to think of as unsavory, poor, and where brown people are, and you have the verde – it’s just also prettier, because it’s on the coast of the southern Atlantic), is named Summer King, it’s a thing. But I like how Johnson touches on it with the air of someone who knows what it’s like to be the brown person moving through a class system, which means that sometimes it’s a bigger issue than other times, and that June and Enki both have other stuff going on, like how there are beautiful people EVERYWHERE that they could be having sex with, like how Enki’s mom is dead and left behind a mystery, like how June’s dad is dead and left her with a bunch of confusion, and like how there is art that needs to be made, stat.
So. Other cool thing in this book: public art, especially of the avant garde, protest manner. (See: book that I have not finished but have been occasionally reading for review, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation.) June is up for the prestigious Queen’s Award, which is given to a promising high school student who is super talented at something – other contenders are technophiles, musicians, etc – and through meeting Enki after his election of Summer King (it’s a democratic election that leads to the death of the king at the end of the summer; in his death, he names the next queen, who is the head of the Aunties, the matriarchs who really run the town), June is inspired to take her art off of the paper and onto the city itself, accidentally on purpose bringing to light the bureaucracy of the Aunties, the major class divides in the city, and the oppression of wakas (people under thirty) by everyone else (ranging in age from 31 to 300 or so).
I don’t notice setting most of the time, so the fact that I noticed the setting in The Summer Prince is excellent means that it is especially fabulous. I want to climb all over this city, and you can totally climb it, because there are rocks and coves, shoes with nanogrips that let you walk sideways, and transport that zips you all around. Other things that make this book especially vibrant are the things June does to modify her body (see: the cover), talk of bossa nova and samba, and lots of sex and beauty. The Summer Prince is lush but also futuristic sci-fi cool-girl world. Also, it’s about people in all shades of brown, which I love, because it’s done in a way that makes it clear that peeps be of color, but it also isn’t the main point of the story (though it’s written by a US American, obviously it doesn’t take place there, so the social aspects of color are different anyway). So much winning at life, Alaya Dawn Johnson! Can we be friends?
What really does it for me in this book is the really great, natural use of Portuguese throughout, but I’m worried that may be the book’s downfall. From my e-ARC, it seems that none of the words are in italics, which is great, because that otherizes language and privileges English, and it’s also distracting to read. But given how resistant Americans are to treating other languages like they’re language, I wonder if it will annoy people (for this and many other reasons, I want to revisit this book at a future date, actual print copy in hand, and read it alongside people who do not have even the small relationship with Brazil and Portuguese that I have). The only other book I’ve seen that does this is Bless Me, Ultima. I really do think that it’s one of those things where you can get a lot from context, and I also believe that it’s not the job of literature to water itself down so that the “general public” (read: white middle class people) can read it without having to stretch themselves (I seriously had someone in class once say that maybe Virginia Hamilton should have ditched writing in dialect if she wanted people to read her book, because ACK! Gawd forbid you have to read something different from your direct experience. I digress). I am just generally curious.
There are some things that are not completely great about this book, like the last 50 or so pages. Like a lot of novels with well built worlds, the plot is less interesting and important than the setting, the setup, and the characters, so the final adventures read as rushed and awkward. And there is A LOT going on as far as the politics, backstory, secondary characters, and secondary plots are concerned. Like, I already think I need to reread it, and someday perhaps I will. But until then, there is so much life to this book, and I want everyone to read it.