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The Summer Prince Hardcover – 2013
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*Starred Review* After a nuclear winter, survivors in Brazil build the towering pyramid city of Palmares Tres, where every five years an elected king chooses a queen, lives for a year, and is then sacrificed. Privileged, rebellious young artist June Costa is mesmerized by this year’s election, and she fiercely favors Enki, a beautiful boy from the bottom tier, the world of the algae vats and the perpetual stink. After his election, June and her best friend are drawn into Enki’s world. With only a year to live, he is a brilliant and fast-burning star whose light opens June’s eyes to the serious issues—and corruption—affecting her city, and with her art, she helps to release a surge of discontent. In this YA debut, Johnson paints a brilliant picture of a seemingly lush paradise hiding a core rotted by class stratification, creative stagnation, and disenfranchisement. Evocative, disturbing, and exhilarating, this story leaves much for the reader to ponder, from the nuanced characters to fascinating central themes, including the impact of technology and the role of isolationism in a perilous world. Like leaping into cold water on a hot day, this original dystopian novel takes the breath away, refreshes, challenges, and leaves the reader shivering but yearning for another plunge. Grades 9-12. --Lynn Rutan
As the trio dances-often literally-around one another, June must negotiate between the extremes of stasis and post-humanism, learn to see beyond herself, discover the meaning of integrity, and maybe even save her rotten-at-the-core and best-beloved city. Luminous.” -- Kirkus Reviews, starred review
In this YA debut, Johnson paints a brilliant picture of a seemingly lush paradise hiding a core rotted by class stratification, creative stagnation, and disenfranchisement. Evocative, disturbing, and exhilarating, this story leaves much for the reader to ponder, from the nuanced characters to fascinating central themes, including the impact of technology and the role of isolationism in a perilous world. Like leaping into cold water on a hot day, this original dystopian novel takes the breath away, refreshes, challenges, and leaves the reader shivering but yearning for another plunge.” -- Booklist, starred review
In precise prose Johnson evokes an utterly foreign setting, complete with technologies that push at the limits of what it means to be human, and the relationships that delineate the social landscape are intriguingly unconventional and startling in their intensity. The story itself is thematically rich, encompassing the political nature of art in a time of vast upheaval, the potential of power to corrupt, the tension between tradition and innovation, and the toils and rewards of underground creative expression . An imaginative and thoroughly realized addition to the sci-fi genre.” -- Horn Book
"There's a great, fresh audacity to Johnson's YA debut." -- Entertainment Weekly
Rife with political turmoil and seeped in culture, this unique and highly fantastical dystopian romance is both intriguing and imaginative. Johnson excels at building rich and gorgeously complex worlds, and her prose shines with a sophistication that's uncommon in YA literature. This beautifully written novel will likely find a home with fans of Alison Croggon and Rachel Hartman.” -- School Library Journal
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Now to the bad side of the book - the world-building is distinctly weak. There are huge differences in tech levels between cities: people in Tokyo have mind uploads and people in Salvador have access to nano-machines capable of universal assembly. It's just not plausible that this sort of technology can not be smuggled into Palmares Três. And it's just not plausible that such a gap can be supported for 400 years.
Palmares Três itself is also weak. Citizens there have at least a limited access to nanotech and semi-sentient AIs, but people still work at menial jobs. Energy is produced by vats of algae in form of hydrogen gas (tip to the author: it's NOT poisonous) with the side-effect of making the lowest levels of the city incredibly smelly. It would have been trivial to switch to solar panels or isolate the vats from the atmosphere properly even without the wonder-tech of the future.
No, what makes this book interesting are characters and social commentary. Society in Palmares Três is really an inversion of our society. Women are in charge and men are considered to be the gentler sex (so it's considered OK for boys to cry but not for girls) and there are no men in the power structure (Aunties, but not Uncles) apart from the Kings. Bisexuality is considered so normal that there are no comments about it at all (which is a comment in itself, of course). Assisted suicides are OK. And so on...
And then there's the central theme of the book - of a society built on a ritual human sacrifice (even voluntary one). It's brilliantly written, go and read it.
Oh, and then there's a link to the Epic of Gilgamesh - Enki and Gil are partially inspired by Enkidu and Gilgamesh. I wonder why no other reviewers caught this link...
Anyways. This book was typical in many ways: it features a feisty female protagonist with Special Talents (she's an artist) who has a forbidden romance with a boy who is doomed to die; the world has recently been blown to bits after a series of (presumably) nuclear incidents and the new civilization that has emerged from the dust seems idyllic from the outside but is actually deeply whacked and oppressive (shocker).
A brief plot summary before I get into what's different about this one and why, despite the unique take on this genre, this was still ultimately a dud for me. This takes place in what used to be Brazil, I believe, in this giant city that exists in some type of pyramid structure, with the wealthiest/most powerful living on tier 10 at the top, and the lowly poor folks all the way at the bottom (there is a catchy word for the bottom tier that I cannot recall presently). (If you need a visual, I envisioned it looking like the White City of Gondor. Could be way off though.)
The city is ruled by women. I guess they decided after the nuclear holocaust that men had done a pretty good job ruining everything for...pretty much all of civilization heretofore, so, no more men in charge. Every summer the city votes to elect a "summer king" who rules alongside the queen, and then at the end of the summer, the queen slits his throat in a grand ceremony that all the city attends. As the dying king takes his last breath, blood splurting everywhere, he has to select the new queen. So the king has the power to choose the next leader, but, tragically, it will be the last thing he ever does.
Now that I have set it up for you, those of you who read these books can probably figure out the rest of the plot. This might come as a shock, but our girl June (the protagonist), falls hard for Enki, the summer king. They bond over their mutual love of art. Very tough situation for all involved since Enki has a death sentence.
One thing that was weird/unique about this book is that every character in it is bisexual, yet the topic sexuality is never overtly addressed--not once in the entire book. It's just a given. When June's father dies, her mother marries a woman. Enki has affairs with both men and women throughout. And so does pretty much every other character we hear about. I thought it was kind of jarring that the topic of sexuality was never actually directly addressed in the book, because the author DOES address literally every other major difference between the old world and the new. June pontificates endlessly about race (white people are pretty much gone now that North America is a wasteland), gender (women are now the gender in power and everyone accepts it since men are blamed for ruining the old world), religion, politics, etc., but never touches on the fact that suddenly everyone and their brother is bisexual now. It was clearly an intentional move on the author's part and I felt vaguely manipulated by it, which was off-putting.
The main problem I had with the book was that it seemed sloppily put together. I could tell the author had done her homework with the world building, but the execution was a mess. Very confusing, lots of strange terms being thrown out with no context, not enough description for me to really visualize what the city or world looked like (which is why I had to substitute Gondor), etc. It sort of read to me like an early draft, so that was a bummer. Another problem, which pops up in 99.9% of these books, is that I didn't feel our girl June had any sort of distinct voice, and neither did her loverboy Enki. All the characters had one or two key "traits" (June is a feisty artist; Enki "loves" his city), but no one seemed at all developed, and when you combine the lack of character development with the confusing world building, it was just kind of a mess, and a rather boring one at that. I almost gave up on this a few times, but it's a pretty short book so I eventually manned up and powered through.
All in all, I will give this 3 stars I guess. That may seem generous, and it is. This gets points for originality (I liked that women were in power and the eerie ritual of the summer king was a nice gory touch).
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***I won this novel from IReadYA and Scholastic. However, all opinions are my own.Read more
I received The Summer Prince as a part of a package giveaway at the Dystopian YA panel at bookcon, and after hearing Johnson...Read more