The Summer Prince is a complex and thoughtful YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic future (references are made to bombing, extreme climate change and plagues) in which some parts of the world have recovered, advanced and prospered while others remain damaged, unstable and unsafe. One bubble of prosperity (at least for most of its citizens) is the city of Palmeres Tres (the historical Palmeres was a fugitive community of escaped African slaves, people of mixed race, Indians and poor whites, mostly Portuguese, established in colonial Brazil in 1605). Palmeres Tres is a city built in the shape of a pyramid, with the wealthy and political elites living on the upper tiers, and the lowest class, those who work and live amidst the stench of the algae tanks that feed the city on the bottom.
Founded after the Y Plague which killed 70 percent of the male population around the world, Palmeres was and is a matriarchy, ruled by a Queen and her congress of advisors, mostly Aunties with a sprinkling of Uncles. The legitimacy of the Queen, however, comes from the dying choice of the Summer Kings, who are sacrificed yearly (in a cycle of four moon years followed by one sun year - the moon year Kings traditionally only confirm the current Queen, the sun year Kings have the option to choose a new Queen as they are ritually killed.
Palmeres Tres has evolved a society that is essentially conservative and rigidly stratified on class, age and gender, but sexually permissive. Same-sex marriages, bisexuality and multiple partnering are commonplace, but the classes rarely interact, society is divided into grandes (those over 30) and the younger wakas (seen as children and lacking power), and men are rarely seen in positions of power and authority. Furthermore, there is a divide between the grandes, particularly of the upper classes who are resistant to new technologies, and wakas, particularly those of the the lower classes, who are eager to access and use these technologies.
The novel starts in the spring of a moon year. All of Palmeres Tres is eagerly following the public appearances of the three final candidates for Summer King, including two young friends - June, an aspiring artist from a high-ranking and politically connected family, and Gil, a dancer whose mother is a sought-after clothing designer. Their choice for Summer King is Enki, dark-skinned and the child of a refugee from outside, who grew up among the algae vat workers. (Don't read too much into the similarity of the names Enki and Enkidu, Gil and Gilgamesh - I did, and was a little disappointed to find that all that was being referenced was "wild man" element of Enki's character, the gap in social status between the two young men, and the intensity of the relationship that eventually develops between them.)
Enki, of course, becomes the Summer King, and rather than play the game of figurehead, he sets out to use his ceremonial powers to effect real positive gains for the people of the underclass. Gil becomes his lover, and Juno his secret collaborator in performance/spectacle art intended to spark social change.
As the narrative unfolds, this complex coming-of-age story addresses issues as diverse as the role of art and spectacle in shaping revolution and social change, the responsible use of new technologies, the ethics of privilege and power, the meaning of sacrifice, the importance of integrity and the need to consider consequences. All this on top of the more commonly highlighted YA themes of exploring love, sexuality, and friendship and negotiating the path from teenager striving to break with one's family to adult who accepts and understands one's family.
I enjoyed the book, but I feel it is important to comment on the issue of cultural appropriation raised by one reviewer:
Unfortunately, the book is set in Brazil and so obviously written by someone who is not Brazilian. And before anyone can say but “it is not really Brazil, because it’s in the future” or something equally disingenuous like that: the language used in the book is Portuguese; the location of Palmares Tres is still in Bahia; the book references Brazilian history and background. So yes: it is Brazil.
But a Brazil that only an outsider could write. Because the story focuses on the parts of history and culture that an outsider would highlight, and none of the insider knowledge that goes much beyond the surface. And I want to be careful here because it’s not like I don’t appreciate and admire authors who want to move the focus from Europe/US to elsewhere in the world. I also have read interviews with the author (and even briefly met her at BEA a couple of years ago) and I believe in her good intentions and that she tried to be as respectful as possible, which just goes to show that even the best intentions can go awry. (http://thebooksmugglers.com/2013/10/smugglers-ponderings-thoughts-on-the-summer-prince-by-alaya-dawn-johnson.html)
I did notice that many readers/reviewers seemed to be veering toward exoticising the setting, as in this comment: "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."
Johnson has spoken about having done research and reached out to people with more knowledge and experience of Brazil, so it's clear that she acknowledged the issues of writing about another culture. And it's important for writers to push boundaries. It's hard to write authentically about a culture you have not lived in, but it is every author's right to try it, and Johnson clearly tried to do it with sensitivity and respect.
Personally, I feel that a book that succeeds in many areas while being flawed in some others is still a good book. I've read some great books set partially or wholly in Canada but written by people not steeped in Canadian culture that were "off" from a cultural perspective but still good because of what they accomplished in other areas. Is it always cultural appropriation to write about a culture not one's own? Does the intent and effort to deal with the culture respectfully make up for any lapses or inauthenticities perceived by the reader who is familiar with the culture? These are questions I don't have answers to. Which is, I suppose, why I've written at length about all the interesting aspects of the novel, but also added this lengthy discussion of culture appropriation.