Friday, July 19, 2013

Too Fast to Live: Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince

In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer traces a number of folk European rituals to a tradition that he believes was once widespread: A man, usually young, is chosen as the Summer King, and given all honor and respect for a year. At the end of a year, he is ritually killed, perhaps as a sacrifice or perhaps in a battle with his successor. Frazer claims to have found a number of similar rituals, some of them still in practice at the time he was writing, in African, Polynesian and Native American kingdoms.

Regardless of the quality of Frazer's data, or the degree to which the ritual of the Summer King was ever actually practiced, the archetype remains powerful. Names like Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain or Shakur remind us we haven't ceased worshipping those who will trade longevity for power and desirability. It is ripe grounds for fiction, and Alaya Dawn Johnson mines it well in her new book The Summer Prince.

At first The Summer Prince seems it might be one more book in the flood of apocalyptic scifi YA novels that have hit the market after Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and indeed is marketed as such. But Johnson twists all the expectations of genre into something new, resulting in a work at least as revolutionary as Collins'. The narrator, June Costa, is a teen girl on the verge of womanhood in a the pyramidal glass city of Palmares Três which rises over the wasteland that was once Brazil. Palmares Três is a matriarchy, but it is no utopia. It may be paradise for those who, like June, live in the upper tiers, but their luxury rests on the back of the poor citizens who live in the lowest level amongst the algae tanks that provide the city's energy.

Those who live on the bottom tier call it the verde, or the green, but the upper tiers call it the catinga, or the stink. Literally reeking and full of gangs and poverty, the green produces survivors and people who know how to play the system, people like Enki, the Summer Prince of the title. Enki has chosen to sacrifice his life and future for a year in power, even though his role is supposed to be mostly ceremonial in a city ruled by a Queen and a cabinet of Aunties. The cuddly title of 'Auntie' belies the leaders who bear it. As the book progresses the Aunties, including June's stepmother Auntie Yaha, are revealed to be vicious political knife-fighters more than willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the city and their own place in power -- not necessarily in that order.

It is Enki, initially, who challenges the power of the Queen and the Aunties. He uses the privileges of his position to shove the experience of the verde in their face, literally making them smell the stink they would rather ignore. He hacks the city's robots and its computerized avatar voice, a sort of Big Sister via Siri, to defy the deliberate technological backwardness that the Aunties have chosen to impose on the city.

June, a pampered Tier Eight girl, has no motive to change the order of things. At first, June is only interested in proving herself as an artist, both to the city and to the deceased father who she feels never appreciated her. June's yearning for her father, and her fierce battle of wills with her mother who still seems to be competing with June for him, is painful and utterly believable.

But of course June's quest as an artist links her life to Enki, and to his quest for justice. Initially this happens through Enki's romantic relationship with June's best friend, the painfully handsome dancer Gil. Like a good YA book this one features a love triangle, but as with so many other conventions Johnson turns the triangle sideways. It is Enki who's the vertex here, with June and Gil both struggling for a place in his heart. And no one expects Enki to choose one or the other, or even both. There's no future in a relationship with a boy who has less than a year to live and besides, as June reminds us repeatedly, "everyone knows that Summer Kings screw like mayflies."

It should be clear by now that this book kicks down all the walls regarding sexual conventions and gender binaries. June's mother's marriage to a woman is distressing to June only because it happens so soon after her father's death, and perhaps because the relationship began while he was still alive. Enki's romance with Gil is controversial not because they are the same gender but because Enki uses Gil to deliberately blow off the Queen. In this matriarchal society, there is the implication that men have taken on some of the cultural characteristics we associate with women. At one point June tells Gil, "It's okay for you to cry, you are a beautiful boy." Enki uses his sexuality to seduce older, powerful people to get technology he might not have gotten otherwise. Though never explicit, The Summer Prince deals frankly with a lot of mature themes, and parents will have to decide whether a young reader is ready for it.

At the heart of the book is June's decision about whether to succeed within the boundaries imposed on her by her mother and the Aunties, or to defy and challenge them as Enki does and wants June to do as well. Johnson doesn't make the choice easy, and makes clear that either choice has consequences that are harsh and difficult to escape. This leads to a conclusion that might have been anticipated but nevertheless feels surprising and suspenseful until the end.

 To say that The Summer Prince is the most important YA I've read in a long time understates its significance. A book like this, if it was released when I was an adolescent, would have been categorized as adult science fiction and marketed that way, and a young reader would have only found it by browsing the scifi and fantasy shelves as I and so many kids my age did. In a way I wish it was marketed to adults, because then kids could stumble upon it the way I stumbled upon, and surreptitiously read, so many titles that would then have been considered too mature for someone my age. As it is, I expect Johnson's work to challenge the expectations of young and adult readers alike.

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