March 8, 2013

Review: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Published: March 1, 2013, Arthur A. Levine
Genre: Young Adult Dystopian
Source: eARC from publisher via Netgalley
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This isn't about sex. This isn't a love story. I'm not doing this so a king can choose me and make me special. I'm doing this so two artists can create work together that they could never imagine alone

Ever since I first saw The Summer Prince mentioned for other bloggers' Waiting on Wednesdays and subsequently featured it for my own Waiting on Wednesday post, I knew that The Summer Prince was a book that I simply had to read. From the cover to the synopsis, I expected a different sort of story than traditional YA dystopian fare. In that sense, The Summer Prince certainly delivers. 

In an undisclosed amount of time in the future, the Earth has undergone many changes, mostly for the worse. Over four hundred years ago, society as we know it succumbed to wars, mass destruction, and a debilitating Y plague that wiped out the majority of men. Since then, the pyramid city of Palmeres Tres has formed on a Brazilian bay. It is led by Aunties, a group of female politicians, and a queen. To keep their city unified and slightly democratic, every five years the people of Palmeres Tres elect a Summer King to rule beside their queen for a year. At the end of the year, the king is sacrificed and, with his dying breath, reveals who will be the new queen.

This is the reality of June and her best friend Gil. They both live privileged lives in Tier Eight, one of the better sections of their socially and geographically stratified city. When they decide to support Enki, a young man from the lowest tier and one of the candidates for the new Summer King, they have no idea how his election will change their lives forever, as well as the lives of all those who reside within Palmeres Tres.

I first need to mention the cultural influence present within The Summer Prince. It was extremely refreshing to read a YA novel featuring a country and culture largely ignored: Brazil. I'll admit that my knowledge of South America lies in Hispanic countries, but I loved the dashes of culture that Johnson infuses into the story, from the emphasis on samba to bits of history to the focus on the land. It definitely made me want to learn more about Brazilian culture.

The Summer Prince largely focuses on the relationships that both June and Gil form with Enki. Their beloved Summer King has only a year left to live, and both June and Gil are important factors in his power plays and moves for equality of those from the the lower-tier slums he calls his home. In the complex relationship between the three of them, Gil and Enki fall in love, while June forms strong but very different friendships with both of them. As the title implies, Enki, the Summer King (disrespectfully referred to as the "Summer Prince" by those Aunties who fear his power), is at the center of the story. He alters the dynamic of June and Gil's friendship and ultimately acts as a catalyst for June's transformation from a privileged, insecure teen into a social activist. Perhaps on a basic level, one could describe June, Gil, and Enki's relationship as a love triangle, but it's really much, much more. They all help bring out the best in each other, and the readers cannot help hoping that nothing interferes with the dynamic present.

Another major focus of the novel is on the power of art. June calls herself "the best artist in Palmeres Tres," and it is her desire to use her art to win the Queen's Prize scholarship that leads to her initial collaboration with Enki. Over the course of the novel, however, June really explores the different purposes and meanings of art. Its creation can be cathartic in nature, or can be spurred by a sense of rebellion. It can be planned, or it can be be created in the moment. The Summer Prince shows how there's always a message attached to art. It is up to the artist and the viewers to determine what that message is.

The premise of The Summer Prince is where the story really excels. As any good dystopian should have, the world of June, Gil, and Enki is a juxtaposition of technological and societal advancements and regressions. Palmeres Tres itself is a technological wonder: a ten-tiered city that spans vertically into the sky. Scientists have enabled humans to over two hundred years. The world has basically recovered from the Y plague, although now women hold the power. The city is a cognizant being that can interact with and aid its inhabitants. Homophobia no longer exists, although the people of Palmeres Tres continue to exhibit racism, classism, and ageism, among other discriminatory behaviors. But the truly darker side of this city is one that allows the Aunties' fear of change to halt technological progress, their need for stability to allow severe social strata to persist, and their love of power which necessitates the continuation of the tradition of the Summer King. 

In that same vein, however, the story's inability to fully live up to the premise is where it falters somewhat. While I really loved the idea of a powerful ruling class of women, by the end of the book I had only faint inklings of how this came about. The same can be said for the barbaric Summer King sacrifice. It's a tradition and a way to keep the people united under one rule, but surely at this point in the future it is no longer necessary. June and Gil question the sacrifice more because it's Enki in line as the next sacrifice rather than because they feel a sense of barbarism from the entire ritual. The Summer Prince is told from June's perspective, but throughout the novel I could not tell if my lack of understanding about this world was due to the fact that June already understood the mechanics of her world, or that she simply didn't care to truly understand it all. I want to be able to understand why things function the way they do in a dystopian world, and there were definitely aspects that could have been better fleshed-out.

While The Summer Prince did falter in worldbuilding and a slower plot, it was still a solid and entertaining read that left its readers with some big questions to ponder. From the perils of a society obsessed with age and afraid of change to the stirrings of a social revolution to the perils and benefits of technology to finding meaning in art and expression, The Summer Prince is nothing if not thought-provoking. Johnson presents a unique dystopia, one that I am not likely to forget any time soon.

Disclaimers: I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the finished copy.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. It's a shame about the world-building and slow plot line, since I seem to not have any patience for either of them, but the cultural influences you discussed really do sound fantastic. I may have to really give this a go after all. Great review, Amanda! :D

    1. They were definitely my favorite part. That and the story itself was really interesting. If you do decide to read this book, I'll be interested to read your thoughts!

  2. Haha, just reading your review I was already asking questions about how this world came to be (I mean, most the men on earth are dead, and you're ritually sacrificing those who are left?), and I'm sad to see that some of this never gets flushed out. STILL, I LOVE the fact that it's set in Brazil, and I'm totally intrigued. Still wavering on whether or not this one is for me, but I may pick it up at the library and give it a shot.

    1. The book does mention that the population has mostly evened out again, but with no explanation of how that became possible, which was a little frustrating. I still do recommend this book for those who want to read something outside the norm of typical YA dystopian books and something with an interesting culture. :)


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