The way to a man’s heart is through the rib-cage
The Summer Prince
By Alaya Dawn Johnson
The title of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 2013 The Summer Prince mirrors Vinge’s The Snow Queen. A tip of the hat to Vinge, whether coincidental or deliberate, is appropriate: both the Snow Queen of Tiamat and the Summer King of Palmares Tres have the same retirement package. They get to be the human sacrifice in a succession rite.
Both novels concern themselves with romantic triangles, but the relationships involved are very different. The triangle in The Snow Queen is toxic; that in The Summer Prince (the triangle between June Costa, her old friend Gil, and Enki) may be complicated and stressful, but in the end all three participants love and support each other. It’s just too bad that Enki’s ambition to be the next summer king seems likely to be fulfilled … because that means that Enki’s life is going to be very, very short1.
Four centuries ago, nuclear war and plague smashed the old order. Out of the ruins, new communities arose. Some, like Japan, embraced the post-human potential of new technologies. Matriarchal Palmares Tres took a far more conservative approach, viewing most innovation (aside from life extension) as a danger to their peaceful, ordered society. If you are lucky enough to inhabit the tip-top of Palmares Tres’ social pyramid, the current order offers security and comfort. Why risk it all for the sake of change?
Enki has a very different point of view. He’s a boy in a matriarchy, a teenager in a gerontocracy. He also hails from the very bottom levels of society; he is one of the poor and desperate whom the Aunties collude to ignore. He knows what it’s like to live on the bottom, and he’s willing to pay a steep price to bring reform.
June is less ambitious: she just wants to be the best artist in Palmares Tres. But her three-sided romance with Gil and Enki makes her and her friends a threat to the natural order.
Those familiar with this novel may wonder why I never mentioned that Palmares Tres is in what was once Brazil. That’s because Johnson’s futuristic Brazil is about as Brazilian as L. Sprague De Camp’s Brazil. Actually, less; the cultural discontinuity between modern day Brazil and the isolationist utopia of the 25th century is larger than the gap between Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon Britain. It’s not really a story set in the Brazil of the future, but a novel set in a city that happens to be geographically coincident with Brazil. Maybe the Great Brazilian SF novel has already been written, but this isn’t it.
One of the first questions I ask myself when I read novels like this one is “does the implied age pyramid support the events of the novel?” Lifespans in Palmares Tres are two centuries plus. The population seems to be fairly stable, which implies that June’s age cohort should be tiny, less than 2% of the population. In light of that, it doesn’t appear all that unlikely that the few teens should all know each other. Most of the population is older than they are, generally much older.
I will leave the vexing political question, “should a tiny fraction of the population, a young and presumably naive fraction at that, dictate to the majority,” for other people to discuss. Still, even if you happen to believe in that old canard, democracy, it would have been quite possible to NOT sympathize with rabble-rousing Enki and his friends. All the author had to do was tweak a detail here and there. She did not. These are appealing characters.
Human sacrifice seems an odd way to choose a ruler, but we are given an explanation of how Palmares Tres hit on that particular method. A reasonable compromise in the early days of the polity has morphed into an institution that the founding mothers might not have imagined and which they would probably not approve. It is basically the same way Canada ended up with its current Senate. The lethal violence is atypical for the city; when two people are killed later in the book, during a riot, the deaths are considered horrific anomalies.
Enki’s attempt to gain the power to reform Palmares Tres exploits an obvious chink in the regime’s armour; the possibility is like a big red button in the worldbuilding, one labelled PUSH HERE. Lest we miss the button, one of the characters in the novel observes that while Feature X might just allow someone to meddle in government policy, that’s a purely technical detail of no practical significance.
Enki’s actions astonish the Aunties, who are in resolute denial of all problems. The city’s infrastructure is decaying; the exploited underclass is restive and increasingly vocal — but as far as the Aunties are concerned, everything is copacetic and they are totally in control. Why would anyone complain?
Although Enki’s ambitions drive the plot, June is the central character. She does not have an easy time of it. She is humiliated when she loses an art contest2; exactly HOW that happens shapes her reactions to later setbacks. She develops a crippling imposter syndrome. Later, she gets to watch one of her crushes ignore her as he falls in love with her other crush. Publicly.
And yet … the trajectory of the romantic triangle is engaging. Nor do June’s reactions disappoint. It may be that some details of the plot or the worldbuilding don’t stand up to close inspection, but because the real focus is on June, not the setting, that matters less than one might expect. The book stands or falls on how sympathetic, how believable, a figure June is. At least for me, the book did not fail. I am not alone in this: The Summer Prince was nominated for the Norton, placed 5th in Locus’ Best Young Adult Book poll, and was listed on the 2013 Tiptree Honor Roll3.
1: I know very little about the conventions of the romance genre, but I learned today that Enki’s (probably) doomed condition would not allow this novel to be marketed as a Romance. Apparently genre romance connoisseur are specific about definitions: if it does not have a Happily Ever After, it’s may be a romance but it is not Romance.
2: As I read about the art contest, I wondered if the episode had been based on a real life incident. It was all sadly plausible.
3: Which, no matter what the ISFDB claims, is not the same as being nominated for the Tiptree. To end up on the Honor Roll, it must already have been considered for the Tiptree.