The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Arthur A. Levine, March 2013, HC: 289 pages. Bought.
A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.
The lush city of Palmares Três shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.
Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Três will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.
Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.
I am going to preface this by saying that The Summer Prince is a book with very strong qualities that speak for it but also some pretty awful cultural appropriation with regards to its Brazilian setting.
Before I go any further, I should probably disclose my biases: I am Brazilian (born and bred), I am White (half-Brazilian, half-Portuguese), I am from Rio de Janeiro, I have a History degree (studying religious experiences pertaining to Indigenous peoples of Brazil at the time of early colonisation as well as extensive research about the Inquisition Visitations to Bahia in the 1500s). I love certain types of Samba and I hate Carnaval (yes, it is possible to both love Samba and hate Carnaval. Quelle surprise!).
And in retrospect, I should have known. I’ve had the book on my radar since before it came out and I was intrigued by it but also incredibly repelled by the mention of “lethal samba” in its official blurb (because: what.Is.That? I keep imagining a Ninja Sambista with daggers on his shoes: they samba but they can also kill you!). And even though I know full well how often blurbs miss the mark and how little authors have to do with them, the point remains that someone in the publishing venture connected to this book thought it was a good idea to mention “lethal samba”. But then the rave reviews from trusted sources started to pile up and I decided to give it a go.
So here we are.
The Summer Prince is set in a post-apocalyptic world. The biggest, most powerful cities have been destroyed and hundreds of years ago, a Y plague has killed off a great percentage of the male population. Pockets of civilization remain and thrive, amongst them the great city of Palmares in what was once the state of Bahia in Brazil. Palmares Tres is a great pyramid city ruled from the top by its Queen and her council of Aunties.
It is also a dystopia: Palmares Tres is presented as the best possible place to live, because its citizens have great freedom, technological development ensure people can live much longer, everybody loves life and there is dance and art as well as freedom to be who you are and to be with who you want to be (polyamory and LGBT relationships are the norm, no questions asked). But at the same time, on its underbelly there is a stench of poverty, of a strong class gulf between top and bottom, with those at the bottom living a less privileged life. There is also a powerful divide between old (“grande”) and young (“waka”) and between technology and tradition in a way that makes Palmares Tres a complex, vivid city.
And then once every five years a King is chosen by popular vote to be ritualistic killed one year later. At the time of his death, he chooses the next Queen as he dies. Thus, the Summer King has the power to choose the Queen but then has to relinquish the limited power that he has; this ritual a reinforcement of this matriarchal society whose roots developed from a patriarchy that has caused most of the damage to the world. Or, this is the official discourse from Palmares Tres’s top government and most of the book actually interacts with and questions this idea.
It is against this background that protagonist June undergoes a powerful transformation from girl to woman, from waka to grande. Her trajectory starts at a pivotal point for Palmares Tres: when the new Summer King is about to be chosen. The whole city – including June and her best friend Gil – fall in love with Enki, the bold, larger-than-life King. Gil and Enki fall in love with each other but so do June and Enki – the connections between each of them or all of them are fluid, artistic, beautiful and meaningful.
June is an inspired artist who understands the power of art for art’s sake as well as the incredible power that art has to subvert and to transform. Enki gets her as she gets Enki in all of his ephemeral glory. June’s story is also one of personal conflict, of attempting to understand the limits of social justice in connection to personal responsibility.
All of the above is what the book does really well.
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.
So for example: the use of language in the book drove me to distraction. Every single time a character mentioned their mother or father they would do so by inserting the Portuguese words mamãe (for mother) and papai (for father) in the middle of the sentence. But really, we only use those words when speaking to children or when speaking to another member of the family. The way it was used in the book – and it was everywhere – made the characters sound like they were either babies – or being ironic and making fun of each other. The best approximate example to describe this would be to say: imagine a whole book with teenagers and adults speaking to each other about their parents by saying “my mommy” and “my daddy”.
And you know, Brazil is a place of huge cultural diversity. This is also true within each state. So it bugs me that in Palmares Tres everybody seems to share the same religion (a syncretism of Catholicism and Candomble) and to universally love and dance Samba to the point of obsession. And yes: those religions, samba, capoeira are all part of our cultural make-up but those are also the only parts that most foreigners seem to know and care about so to see that reinforced and repeated ad nauseam is just off-putting. Like, for example the protagonist’s father who is a musician and who loves 20th century music and who visits the ruins of what once was Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema beach so that he could imagine where Tom Jobin saw the girl from Ipanema *rolls eyes to infinity*. (I don’t know a single Brazilian who can actually stomach that freaking song).
Not to mention certain liberties taken that make absolutely no sense to me. For example: in the book Carnaval was moved to Spring time. Given as how the society in the book has retained its roots in the religions of old Brazil, Carnaval should be held before Ash Wednesday, in the period before Easter – this is how the dates are set every year. Carnaval is not simply a random party that would be moved at will. It has roots and connections to religious background as well. And a lot of the songs and dances mentioned in the book are Bossa Nova and/or 20th Century style Samba and it just surprises me – given how this is Bahia and there are mentions to Capoeira and Blocos, etc – that there is no real mention of Axé music which is so popular in Bahia?
And ok, fine I know this is the future, but I am also still trying to wrap my head around just how exactly would Catholicism/Candomble so easily devolve into human sacrifice. That + pyramids: are Brazilians AZTECS now??! (Actual real question my Brazilian partner asked me when I was telling him about the book).
And those are the details that to most people – probably the vast majority of people who will read this book, who have already read this book – it will sound like “detailed” and “typical”, “realistic” and “recognizably Brazilian” (Oh hi, Publishers Weekly) but that to me read like all these hugely common stereotypes bound together and thrown at my face.
I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend The Summer Prince as much as it deserves for the things that it does really well. But…