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The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

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The lush city of Palmares Três shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, they will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Três will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.
~~~~~
Latin America is an all-too-rare setting in speculative fiction, although a queer matriarchy is rather more common; Johnson’s combination of the two is therefore exciting to approach, but The Summer Prince isn’t without its flaws, some of them quite major.

The characters, however, aren’t among them. Not only does The Summer Prince have a vibrant, diverse, human cast of characters who grow, change, come to personal realisations or act in unpredictable-yet-in-character ways; not only does it have characters who have independent thoughts and voices; but it also makes them different. It is perhaps strange how well June, our first person narrator, understands the psyches of her friends and allies (except at dramatically crucial points, of course), but Johnson just about makes it work. The fatalism of Enki, the passion of Gil, the conflicts June feels are all exceptionally well written, with a very human touch that really makes the novel spring to life.

The relationships are another interesting touch, although I have some problems with them. This is a society that completely accepts queer sexualities – Summer Kings are expected to “screw like mayflies” (p49, a comparison both apt and obvious), and after the suicide-euthenasia of her father June’s mother has married a woman; The Summer Prince uses the two to explore a variety of models of queer relationships. Johnson does, however, fall down heavily in her presentation of kink, which is presented as all about breaking through numbness to just have sensation, and genderqueerness seems to simply not be a thing in the world of The Summer Prince, a frustrating lapse especially in so binarist a society.

The plot is an interesting one; Johnson melds personal growth and grand political change into one another with The Summer Prince, using Enki’s status as an icon to make comments on the nature of art, politics, ideology, and how we approach the future. This is all done in the context of an essentially biographical plot; June has to make a series of choices, including between Enki and Gil, between the Queen’s Award and her ethics, and more. The story follows the way she becomes increasingly politically aware and the way her heart leads her closer to Enki and his political activities, and whilst rather heavy-handed in many ways, and simplistic in its dichotomy of old-versus-young, there is still some interesting discussion here.

Now the real problems with the book. I mentioned above the simplicity of The Summer Prince‘s approach to politics. Enki is carefully noted as a black character in a city which is otherwise uniform in shade, but seems to be either revered for it, or it is ignored; despite mention being made of him being looked down on for his skincolour this is never shown, leading us to imagine a society both enlightened and incredibly racist all at once. That he’s also the magical being at the centre of the narrative who can do all sorts of amazing things repeats a, let us say, trope both obvious and awful. That none of the cities of the modern Latin America survive into this future is rather galling; as if yes, future-Brazil is the height of civilisation (…sort of) but only by completely relocating and reinventing its society. Alongside this Johnson uses a combination of the tropes of augmentation-as-suspect and Japan as unremittingly overpopulated and adopting tech regardless of consequence mainly to highlight the contrast with Palmares Três; the Japan of the novel is strangely flat (and completely ignores a number of vitally important cultural facts like the conservatism also extant in the country).

That’s before we get onto the pseudosyncretic Christianity/Candomble presented by Johnson; the religious elements of each appear to have been almost totally filtered out, and some neopagan/neoCelticist twaddle (the Summer King stuff) added in from absolutely nowhere in any meaningful sense. As a logical development of anything extant anywhere in the world, this… well, isn’t. All this is said as an outsider; the wonderful Ana Grilo of the awesome Book Smugglers wrote a piece on The Summer Prince‘s awful (even if well-intentioned) cultural appropriation and failure of both imagination and empathy here that’s well worth reading, her central point being that “…the details that to most people […] will sound like “detailed” and “typical”, “realistic” and “recognizably Brazilian” (Oh hi, Publishers Weekly) […] to me read like all these hugely common stereotypes bound together and thrown at my face.” Alaya Dawn Johnson may have created an incredibly vivid, vibrant society… but it isn’t a Brazilian one.

The Summer Prince is a really readable novel that I wanted to enjoy a lot more than I did, but Johnson kept on punching me in the face with ignorance, stereotypes and appropriation; it’s hard to disentagle my admiration for the way the characters are portrayed from my horror at the way their culture is. I want, like Ana, to recommend this book, but I just… can’t. And that’s sad.

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