My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: Oh man. Considering this was one of my most anticipated reads of this year, I feel a bit at a loss for words. It really disappointed me despite going through the collective novel because of the lack of flow in the narrative and connectivity with the characters. I thought there were some brilliant images and drawing of the world here, but it wasn’t enough to save the novel for me, alongside some areas where I had other significant problems.
In the end, I feel “The Summer Prince” failed to deliver its respective magic. Beautiful premise, but lacking the backing to carry it.
For a book with such a brilliant premise, beautiful cover, and a society drawn in a place full of vibrancy, color, clashes, among other things – “The Summer Prince” failed to deliver for me anything that would leave an indelible impression. You guys do not know how disappointed I was in this book. It’s not so much that I’m angered or offended by much here (I say much because there are a few contentions I have in this, more on that later), I just felt disappointed, particularly for its respective potential and imaginative qualities. It was probably like Lucy pulling the football out of the running for Charlie Brown, not just once but several times. I wanted to love this – heck, I was expecting to love this on so many levels.
Before I get into my impressions of “The Summer Prince” – I want to turn your attention to a film I saw many years ago that was set in Brazil called Black Orpheus. It was originally made in 1959, and it does show its age a bit, but the film is a brilliant retelling of the myth “Orpheus and Eurydice” – chock full of symbolic quality, color, onscreen chemistry among other things. Perhaps it was presumptuous for me to think so, but I thought “The Summer Prince” would be sort of a YA modern, yet tech heavy, sci-fi equivalent to that, and symbolic for the quality of what its premise lended. If you consider Brazil, it has such a rich cultural history and so many wonderful things about the environment and its people that you could use in a story. Carnival. Samba. The forests, the indigenous tribes, the chemistry of the people. I always say if you’re going to use a place, use it to the fullest extent that you can, but also remember to pay attention to the people (characters) and those who have stakes and respective conflicts in that environment. If you don’t have that, then you can’t expect to build a proper story that will connect. And the way you build that story is just as important.
Alaya Dawn Johnson, I believe, built a sense of place here with (at times) beautiful images, but she forgot to focus more intimately on the stakes of the story, the people in that story with respect to a deeper/more intimate POV, as well as the overarching rules and regulations of the environment she shapes here. If your story begs questions relative to its respective environment – you must answer it. Otherwise it can create problems and lack of understanding.
I think Johnson had several great ideas and an interesting nominative structure of the society, its players, and different measures, but the writing style made it difficult to follow in turns. The writing had sharp transitions and lacked a certain flow to keep the story going like a finger on the pulse of conflict. For me, I had a hard time being pulled and lost into it, despite snippets of the built world. And don’t get me wrong, I actually liked the intrigue of this world at least at its base.
My primary question throughout this entire narrative? Why does the Summer King have to die?
It was answered not in direct context, to be honest. Here, Johnson creates – at its base – a very interesting matriarchal-dominated society. Men have died off in significant numbers due to an non-described plague, and elections are held to choose a new Summer King, who is killed off after choosing a queen (there’s a rather graphic opening where the previous Summer King’s throat is slit after choosing the only queen available. June, the protagonist, observes this and notes that the man is willing to die). My interpretation of things is that this “event” was meant to be a symbolic representation of the plague in the society, so they sacrifice the Kings, but that’s never succinctly stated, and the weight of it never comes across as acutely as it should. I stated in one of my other reviews (I think it was on “Crossing the Rubicon”) that if you mention that a character is going to die so many times, the reader eventually becomes numb to it and it loses its respective gravity, particularly when you don’t have that many (or otherwise ill/vague described) stakes. You can show the gravity in various other ways rather than telling it. Johnson does too much telling of this factor through the protagonist’s eyes concerning Enki, as he is chosen as the Summer Prince/new Summer King.
Which leads me into discussing the protagonist – June. Oh June. I wanted to like this young lady but she made much of the read rather insufferable for me in points. So, in the description of things, June is a waka (under 30-something) who lives in Palmares Tres, an environment of clashing parties which pit traditionalists versus tech savvy groupings (Technophiles, namely). She’s an artist and has some very interesting displays of her artistry, including lights that are embedded under her skin. That’s brilliantly shown on the respective cover of this novel (and what a beautiful cover it is, representing both June’s race and the lights under her skin). June, alongside her best friend Gil, go to see the election of the new Summer King. June falls headfirst (“I’m an instalove machine…) in love with a dark-skinned boy from the Verde (considered lower class) named Enki, one of the candidates for the Summer King. He eventually fills the position. What happens that night is not what June expects, however, as Enki and Gil actually fall in love with each other.
June isn’t exactly happy about this scenario (as she makes claim to several times). To me, the portrayal of the relationships in this is at odds throughout the story, because I don’t know whether this was meant to be a love triangle or a love menage (which if it was the latter, in a YA novel – DUDE :O Holy crud!) It felt more like a triangle, though because June’s toggling in her mind whether she should be with Enki or Gil. She notes the relationship between Enki and Gil as being significant (though Enki’s suggested to be a transient lover >_>), but also voices her conflicted feelings for each boy.
This also struck me as odd because for the focal point of the novel, she’s mostly focused on the choice of her relationships throughout and not because there’s an overarching WAR going on between the Technophiles and Traditionalists. The sad thing is that I think the Technophile and Traditionalist sides are so threadbare and not even given that much attention that it doesn’t have an investment in the respective society. Sure there are a lot of very interesting images (robotic spiders man!) and some noted conflicts, but the deaths feel empty and clinical here. Even with the writing, you’re not exactly sure that someone gets hurt because there’s such a distinct lack of intimacy, particularly considering June’s voice on things. There’s very little urgency in the right places. Even when we get to June’s personal life (her father’s dead, June blames her mother for it), it all comes across as rather shallow. June’s mother is quite insufferable in points, even to the point of shaming her own daughter’s sexual practices in one measure (which made me side-eye my screen).
Speaking of sexuality – this book does not skirt that in some areas – there are features of nudity and even a scene where the main character masturbates with no context to it at all. So be forewarned on content for this and operate under your own discretion. I almost missed that scene entirely, personally, because I wanted to push myself through this. And I had a hard time in the read.
I felt there were petty aspects drawn more attention to in this work rather than the actual heavy conflicts, and that was a major turn off for the book among other matters. Even in one point of the novel, June notes that she’s more concerned about winning her art contest than the two dead wakas that were discovered (two people dead!). That made me facepalm more than a few times.
I didn’t mention that in some areas of the narrative, in the italics, Enki provides his voice and perspective in things. Some of the narratives I thought were poetic, but others I didn’t think helped the narrative flow all that much and made it more cumbersome.
It saddens me because with respect to some of the ideas here, I think it could’ve been brilliant (and in parts, it did show brilliance). I really think this could’ve been more and not even derivative compared to several other YA dystopian/futuristic novels, but sadly, it wasn’t to be. I wanted to love it, but in the end, I couldn’t. I’m conflicted in rec’ing this because for some of the beauty contained in the narrative, there were too many issues that I had with it.
Overall score: 2/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Scholastic.