“When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die.”
It’s some hundreds of years in the future, and the world has been destroyed by (I guess?) nuclear fallout. Palmares Três is a “city of women,” a matriarchal city/state in Brazil. Every five years (…I think) its citizens elect their Summer King, who will rein for one year before he is ritually murdered. Before he bleeds out on stage, he must choose the next queen. Or something. June Costa is an extremely ambitious artist who befriends Enki, the newly elected Summer King, in her last year of high school. They collaborate on increasingly subversive public art pieces, and as the two become closer, it becomes clear that Enki has ensnared June in something far more dangerous than art for art’s sake, something that could change the lives of everyone in their crazy, crazy city.
Alaya Dawn Johnson‘s The Summer Prince (Arthur A. Levine Books) got hyped up the wazoo (including a National Book Award honor) last year. It’s super queer, has nary a white character (this is a big deal for YA science fiction out of a major publishing house), has a lushly imagined setting, explores various relationship structures without criticism of any of them (monogamous, polyamorous, it’s all good), and examines the question of what happens to our humanity when we lose ourselves to the allure of technology. I loved all of these things. So why am I not belting out this book’s praises from the mountaintops?
Because, for all that Johnson pushes all sorts of boundaries with this book, she didn’t really do enough legwork to keep it all together. All the ideas she throws in here? They’re great. But the world in which they exist never fully made sense to me. I never actually understood the ritual of the Summer King, and I never totally got what the hell Palmares Três was actually about. There was a very cursory explanation as to how this city of women came to be matriarchal, and there were casual mentions of a disease that killed off most of the men but it just…never came together for me. The society was way too complex and radically different from the world that we know for her to just breeze through her world building and expect the reader to follow along. It’s kind of like she put together all this juicy flesh but didn’t think to include the skeletal system to support it, so that at times it kind of all collapsed in on itself like a big old meaty mess. Tasty! But not as strong as it could be.
I also had a few fairly notable issues. One is the correlation of women being in power with this weird, nonsensical ritual. All the ideas in this book were SO RADICAL for mainstream YA science fiction, just…why? Why is this city in which the patriarchy has been smashed only able to maintain its female power through some weird mystical bullshit? WHY WHY WHY???? The whole corrupt matriarchy read a bit like what misogynists/anti-feminists (is there actually a distinction, here?) believe feminists want to happen if we were to all unleash our vaginas on the world and take over. I get that part of the point was to illustrate that no one gender should have more power than the other based on gender alone, I GET IT AND I AGREE WITH IT, but it kind of smacked of some old fashioned woman fear, with a futuristic city being ruled by a bunch of witches or some shit.
(I just want to state for the record, that a futuristic city ruled by a coven of ageless witches would totally fucking rule if it were depicted differently than it was in this book.)
I was also really excited, initially, by how totally queer this story is. June’s father elected to kill himself (people live for hundreds of years in this future, and can elect to have their lives terminated), and her mother remarried a woman. She and Enki become friends through his love affair with her best friend, Gil, who at one point expresses total happiness when she and Enki make out. What a cool future! But then, once June and Enki do the nasty, suddenly June is the only one who can save him from his certain death, which, I’m sorry, kind of read like it was only the straight relationship that could possibly be this queer dude’s salvation.
Also, June is a fucking brat. An entitled, vindictive, whiny brat.
Also, and I am no prude, AT ALL, but I actually had a slight problem with the level of sexuality in this book considering how old the characters were/the age of the intended audience. It’s not that I took issue with all the sex being had, but there is some pretty radical sexuality that is treated so casually that it seemed odd considering the characters’ ages. I get that this was supposed to be a super progressive society, but let’s not forget that teenagers aren’t actually adults, and both the complexity and the straight up kinky nature of the sexual relationships explored in this novel is kind of beyond what I think most teens are actually capable of intellectually and emotionally. Maybe in the future their brains are different, but with the way their brains actually operate in reality? No fucking way. It just read a bit false, like maaayybbbeee she was trying a bit TOO hard to push those boundaries. Maybe, MAYBE, if this were a society in which alternative relationship structures and forms of sexuality were totally normalized it would make more sense, but the reactions to some of the character’s actions and the language surrounding the sexuality was pretty clearly aimed at inducing shock. So, no. No, no, and no.
So, oi. Honestly I don’t know what to make of this book. It was so radically different from anything else I had read, but I still felt like Johnson dropped the ball on some pretty substantial issues. I enjoyed reading this, and I’m mildly curious to see what else she writes, but this novel was hella problematic for me. One of those things where for most of the book I thought, “Wee! This is so subversive and different!” but then I finished it, closed the book, furrowed my brow, and frowned. A lot. Bottom line: good to read for discussion fodder if nothing else, and the writing sure is purrty in some parts, but otherwise? Meh.
For music, sorry! I’m doing a last minute edit on a train into the mountains and Youtube won’t work so you guys are shit outta luck.
Where I got it: the library