The Summer Prince
by Alaya Dawn Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I just finished the audiobook and I was blown away by this novel. In many respects, it does what any good novel does, it gives us riveting and realistic characters. Gil, June, and Enki are all fully realized people with issues, pains, and the occasional unreasonable behavior of 18-year olds. The novel builds to both a catastrophic and portentous end which is foreshadowed but that I was uncertain that the author would be able to carry out.
And oh, the setting! Seldom since Ian McDonald's "River of Gods" has a novel dropped me into an 'alien' culture and told me to hang on, pay attention, and keep-up-will-you! Some of this may be because I was reading an audiobook and did not have the easy option of turning back and re-reading. However, I will say the audiobook did have the excellent advantage of having narrators who could handle the Portuguese terms, give the dialog a Brazilian inflection, and could end the reading with one of the pieces of music referenced in the novel. (Many thanks for that final touch.)
As others on Goodreads have mentioned, the novel is set in Brazil. At least 400 years have passed since a nucleur and climate catastrophe have reduced North America and most of the Western World. What remains is a Japan where many citizens have uploaded themselves to the cloud and isolated cities in South America. Gil, June, and Enki live in a pyramid-styled city named Palmess Tres that is reminiscent of Incan pyramids. Reminiscent in more than one way. Their city is ruled primarily by women (Aunties and a Queen). Each year, the queen chooses a king who is sacrificed at the end of summer. The king's power lies in the fact that he chooses the next queen as he dies. As the novel begins, June and Gil have managed to wrangle their way into the ceremony where Enki is chosen as that year's King. This is an off-year when the summer king should not have much power, but Enki is a child of the Favelas. He lives at the base of the pyramid (again the pyramid icon is used with great affect) and he plans to live his year in a way that will remind the power structure of the people in the bottom tiers.
The novel is beautifully layered. There are multiple love stories. There is June's coming-of-age story as she seeks to prove that she is the best artist in her city even as she feuds with her mother and step-mother. There is the infighting and politics that June gradually discovers in her city. There are the SF elements of body modifications, nuclear winter, warring gangs in other cities. The author has effortlessly given us a world where June's mother loses her husband to a state approved suicide and later marries a woman, giving her a stepmother. Her city is one in which Orishas and catholic saints are revered (although June is not a devotee of either). Outside Brazil, we hear of a Y-plague that almost wiped out the y-chromosome. In making the city a matriarchal one, the author has not merely flipped the usual patriarchal story. There are "uncles" in the power structure. Men are not prohibited from any profession--they are teachers, doctors, and professionals. But in general, they do not rule. One gets the impression that men, in this city at least, looked at the destruction around them and abandoned the political center. That isn't the case in other cities, but every other city that the author shows us is rubble fought over by gangs of young men. By authorial design, June's city is the only "civilized" city that we actually see in full. The aunties may be as conniving as a TV-Borgia, but their city works. It least it works until Enki gives the people of the lower tiers a voice.
I borrowed this audiobook from the library, but this is one book that I will have to buy so that I can read it again. (Or both--so that I will have the two narrator's excellent delivery of the text.)View all my reviews