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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

“The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

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I hardly even know where to start with Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince. There is SO MUCH going on in this book.

The Summer Prince is a post-apocalyptic YA, which isn't really my thing, but this book is not about how to survive or recover from the apocalypse: the city is flourishing, except for those the government prefers not to see.

It also gets major points for me for not being based in North America. We hear a little about the state of North America, but more about other places, especially Japan, and the story itself is set in future-Brazil. Alaya evokes the feeling of this place so well that I don't just want to visit Brazil, I want to learn capoeira, and samba.

I didn't like the main character. I didn't like most of the characters, really, which normally kills my ability to get into a story, but not this time. I didn't need to like the characters for them to carry the story. I understood what I needed to, and the characters called each other on their bullshit as it arose.

Alaya uses a pretty interesting structure: the POV of the interludes was a pretty quick mystery to solve, which made them even more effective. The prose of those interludes is even more lyrical than the rest of the book. There are some truly breathtaking moments.

The story challenges gender biases: in a city that is ruled by Aunties, with a mythology that men destroyed the world, rule by women is no better or worse. It was so refreshing to read a story where the characters' different sexualities and preferences mattered NOT AT ALL. Whatever “scandalous” behavior the main characters could and were — accused of, this was not one of them.

There were some moments where I felt like the text was being provocative and including elements that scandalize YA-haters just to prove the point that they're not a big deal, not because they actually helped the story at all. But as narrative criticisms go, I'm almost not sure I can even count that.

Alaya problematizes technology and accessing it: the speed of evolution and the relative merits of controlling its spread, and to whom. She deals with social perception, how image and media can be manipulated for or against people and spiral out of their control even if they started deliberately. How gestures (or founding political documents…) are interpreted and distorted, sometimes even generations later. She explores the power of youth to change the world, even when their elders treat them like tokens. Characters have an array of perspectives on age, on family, on friendship, and on the responsibility that comes with each. We see class struggles in the lack of general public awareness of what goes on that the people in power don't want to have seen, and how art can highlight those things.

Art is very much a thread through every part of this story: how do you define art, and what makes it valuable?

The characters arrive at different answers, but they're asking the kinds of questions I love to see in all books, but especially in YA: how far is it okay to go to get what you want? When is sticking by principle and losing everything you want the right choice, and how do you know where to draw that line? Because actions and choices have consequences. There are a lot of struggles with agency: fighting to have it, to make choices that matter and that personally effect (no, not a typo) their own lives.

I have a lot of mixed thoughts about some of the choices that get made, but the story itself is so thought-provoking that I highly recommend looking into The Summer Prince.


Victoria Van Vlear said...

I've recently been interested in how many post-apocalyptic books are coming out. They all seem to be dealing with the same issues: humanity's destruction of the environment, questioning social classes, and over-controlling governments. A post-apocalyptic book that deals with art would be a different take on the "same old" story. Thanks for the review!

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