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Dystopia, with Dancing

Alaya Dawn Johnson
The Summer Prince
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013)

What makes a dystopia? Must evil be its driving force, or could there be a less sinister foundation, akin to a dysfunctional family gone awry? The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s first young adult novel, explores disturbing notions of social control in a vibrant, poetic love story. Set in 25th century Brazil, Johnson shuffles typical YA themes, including love triangles and the generation gap, with grand-scale philosophical debates. Even where the premise seems familiar, what happens is likely to surprise in this distinctive novel, filled with nuance and wonder.
From its opening passage, The Summer Prince pays homage to its predecessors. We see a queen wielding a blade, a man tied to an altar beneath her. The masses, brightly adorned, are assembled to watch. Here is a universe like that of The Hunger Games, where society has been rebuilt after a cataclysmic war, and public sacrifice is required by a totalitarian government. Like the Graceling Realm series, the story has a feminist bent. And, as in Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, the author plays with the lessons of history in a real world, mystical setting. Yet Johnson distinguishes her novel early on with vivid prose that establishes the beauty and individuality of the setting she has created.

The holo angle widened, showing an altar with a miniature projection of our city glowing at the far end. A man had been bound with ropes beneath it, so the great hollow pyramid of Palmares Trés looked like a crown. An appropriate symbol for our latest king, elected exactly one year ago.
“Why is Summer King Fidel tied down?” I asked Papai.

He squeezed my hand and shushed me gently. “Watch, June,” he said.

At its core, the story is a fresh twist on the tragic romance. June Costa, a high-school artist, fully expects to fall in love with Enki, the new Summer King, whose knowing smile and dreadlocked swagger have seduced half the city. She’s also sure that her love will end in heartache because the law demands that all summer kings, like King Fidel, are sacrificed after only one year of reign. But when June and her best friend Gil finally meet the young king, Johnson offers her first reversal and it is Gil, not June, with whom Enki dances till dawn. In a world where homosexuality is taken for granted, their love affair is uneventful, and Gil slips behind the scenes as a minor character. It is June and Enki that have the richer, more interesting relationship, driven by a shared passion for art as well as June’s burning attraction to Enki. Together the two engage in acts of protest art until June becomes an unwitting icon, much like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. As the story unfolds, we learn of the politics of the pyramid city of Palmares Trés, against which June and Enki fight. Powered by lower class laborers at the bottom of the pyramid, wealth, and privilege increase with each rising layer. Residents as high as Tier Six indulge in wild nightlife and fine dining, while the queen and her ruling elders, known as “Aunties,” enjoy impeccable views from the tip of Tier Ten.

In a city where seniors see their two-hundredth birthdays, age stratification mirrors that of class.  “Always the wakas and the Verde,” complain the unyielding Aunties.  Always the young and the poor, misbehaving and causing trouble. Enki, born on the bottom tier and now only 18 years old, uses his power as king to give voice to the oppressed, from their ability to create forbidden new technology to their demands for equal treatment. He does so with humor instead of bitterness and with the ultimate goal of saving the city he adores.

But June was born a rich girl. As she and Enki grow closer, June is forced to consider her feelings for a city that has treated her nobly and has also been oppressive.  June’s family mirrors the hierarchy of Palmares Trés: her stepmother is an Auntie. (In another twist, it is her mother who has remarried another woman after the death of June’s beloved father.) June’s resentment of her stepmother fuels her anger at the corrupt government of Palmares Trés.  Her greatest sanctuary is her art. Believing that “transgression is part of what makes art work,” June’s art has been a mix of creativity and exhibitionism. When her work becomes entangled with the city’s growing protest movement, Enki must help her to dissect her resentment, to deepen and direct her art.

For all of its exploration of the profound, there are points in the narrative where time seems to move too quickly, or motives fall into question. But those moments pass easily, as the characters draw us forward to the next, fast-approaching curve.

Not are all of the surprises are of a grave or philosophical bent either. Fun comes in the form of quick-witted banter among the characters, and sensuality, spicy as a samba, infuses the story. There is also plenty of action as June and Enki engage in subversive protest art. But it is the philosophical that will perhaps remain with us the longest. Enki’s choice to become a Summer King despite the promise of death affirms his unconditional love for Palmares Trés and leaves the reader with two lingering questions. Can the people at the bottom of the pyramid be so devoted to their city that they willingly choose their sacrifice? And, if so, is it still a dystopia?


Charlene Allen

CHARLENE ALLEN is a writer and critic living in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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