The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince was written by Alaya Dawn Johnson and first published in 2013. It is a cyberpunk dystopian novel, set in a futuristic Brazilian city after the world was decimated by nuclear war. The story stands alone, so you do not have to have read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

In the hostile wasteland of Brazil, the city of Palmares Tres exists as a peaceful safe-haven. The beautiful city has been formed from a mixture of western and eastern cultures, and is ruled by a circle of powerful women known as the Aunties. It also allows the use of body mods – upgrades that range from being cosmetic to allowing their user to live for over two hundred years. However, the culture of Palmares Tres is sustained by a dark act. Whenever a king is crowned, he must be ritually sacrificed at the end of his first year.

June Costa is an eighteen-year-old artist who is eager to prove herself. With the help of her friend Gil, she hopes to create the greatest art that the city has ever seen. She is inspired by the story of one of the candidates for the next Summer King – Enki – a young man from the poorest tier of Palmares Tres who loves to express himself through dance. As Enki is crowned as king, June is thrilled to meet him for the first time. However, her joy is short lived as she discovers that he only has eyes for Gil.

However, June and Enki find a connection through other means. Communicating through their art, they plan to create a display unlike anything the city has ever seen. However, Enki pushes June to her limits as he forces her to see the deep-rooted corruption in the city that the Aunties try to hide. June is torn by what she learns. While Enki will be dead within a year, she must live with her actions for centuries. Can she continue down his path, knowing that it will destroy her only chance for a future?

This is actually one of the hardest reviews that I’ve ever had to write, because The Summer Prince is one of those unusual stories that has the ability to polarise readers. It’s really hard to review it objectively purely because I think that it’s one of those marmite stories that people will either love or hate. However, before I begin, I should probably make clear that this is definitely a story for older teens. While there is nothing that makes it actively inappropriate for younger readers, it’s a very text-dense book and does contain a couple of tasteful sex scenes.

The thing that absolutely floored me about The Summer Prince was its incredible concept. It’s a beautiful cyberpunk novel that subtly explores a number of complex themes. These include our increasing reliance on technology, the power of art and the ethics of euthanasia. However, it addresses each of these in a very natural way without any preaching or clumsy information dumps. While this makes the story a little hard to get into a first, it rewards a patient reader with a complex ethical message and mesmerising setting.

Palmares Tres is a fascinating dystopia. From June’s perspective in the upper tiers of society, it seems to be a paradise in which people are free to learn, party and love. People do not seem to want for anything and routinely live to be over two hundred years old. However, as the story unfolds, June slowly starts to notice the things that other people try to ignore and realises that the political system is corrupt at its core. On the whole, it reminded me a lot of Ursula K Le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, as Palmares Tres is presented as a society that hinges its prosperity on the bloody murder of its king.

However, The Summer Prince unfortunately felt shaky in its execution. As I previously noted, the novel is not generous with its explanations and to fully appreciate it, you have to be pretty good at reading between the lines and realising what is not being said. Some key information, such as the events which lead up to the death of June’s father, come relatively close to the end of the story. This means that you have to wait a long time to truly appreciate the complexity of June’s feelings.

Yet, even by the final pages, I found that not everything was adequately explained. Take for example the ritual and origins of the Summer King. While you do eventually find out where the ritual death originated from, you never really find out why it is so firmly rooted in their beliefs. Palmares Tres doesn’t seem to really have any religion and there is nothing to explain why the citizens think that the death ensures their prosperity, or why they accept the really odd way in which the King “names” the next Queen as being fair. The reader is just forced to accept the fact that it is known, which seems really quite weak.

The book also has a really odd structure. There are no chapter breaks and so locations can sometimes very abruptly change in mid flow, which can make events hard to follow. This isn’t helped by the fact that June is very rarely present for the major events of the story, including a few important character deaths. These are instead related to her second-hand after the fact, which really dampens any impact that they might have had.

While I personally did not think that the story was ever boring, I think it would disappoint readers who prefer their novels to have a faster pace. There isn’t much action in this novel – it’s more about lavish descriptions, tone and dialogue. There isn’t really any true structure to be found. Rather than being a story with a beginning, middle and end, it’s more of a snapshot of events that fills out the year in which Enki is named the Summer King.

However, I personally found that my biggest issue with The Summer Prince was its cast. I really wanted to like the characters in this story as they are wonderfully diverse. None of them are white and the culture of Palmares Tres seems to have no sexual taboos. The principle characters largely seem to be pansexual and engage in healthy, polyamorous relationships without jealousy or discrimination. However, the issue was that I just never really connected with any of them.

The best character in the story was June, as she received a full character arc and I found it quite easy to relate to the ethical pickle that Enki managed to place her in. However, her privilege made her seem incredibly naïve. Sometimes, it felt that she really couldn’t see the wood for the trees as she was so caught up in the glamour of the Summer King. She also felt very young. Although she was eighteen years old and expressed distaste in the way that grandes (adults) treated wakas (youths), her hostility towards her mother and Yaya felt incredibly childish. It was hard to think of her as any less than a waka when she was throwing tantrums and trying to hurt Yaya’s feelings just because she could.

Enki wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I just couldn’t get around the fact that I found him to be wholly manipulative. He frequently tricked June into playing his games even though he knew that he was quite possibly endangering her future, freedom and life. The ending of the story only served to further twist the knife. I won’t spoil it for you here, but it did just prove that he held no respect for June’s wishes as his actions knowingly fly in the face of what she desires. However, I did appreciate the fact that his complex relationship with June was based more on a shared interest than attraction, which made a change from how novels of this sort usually work.

I think I’ve said enough. All in all, I didn’t hate The Summer King. It offered a lot of food for thought and took its audience very seriously. However, I certainly would consider this book to be a one-read. Palmares Tres is beautiful and unforgettable, but I think I’m unlike to ever feel the urge to pick up this book again.

The Summer Prince can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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