The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Arthur A. Levine, March 2013) is a rather rare thing in the YA speculative fiction genre. It's set on a future earth, that has been pushed to the brink of destruction by warfare and climate change (this is not uncommon), and there's high tech sci fi stuff (also not uncommon), and the particular bit of the world that we focus in on has elements that could be considered dystopian (common as mud). And, as is to be expected in a YA book, two teenagers, our heroine, June, and Enki, the titular Summer Prince, bring about much needed change.
So what makes it different? Answer: it's not actually a future dytopia, it's a sci fi book about what constitutes civilization in a world where civilization was almost destroyed, and where the tension between humanity and technology, in keeping "civilization" going, is a primary issue, along with tension between the old and the young, in a world where people live decades (if not centuries) longer than they live today. So it's much more true sci fi set on earth than most YA today.
The future city of Palmares Tres is functioning fairly well--an island of civilization where there have been years of calm prosperity. June, our heroine, is a high status resident of this city, happily planning her future as an artist, and not suffering any privation in the least. But there's a twist or two to Palmeres Tres. This city depends on the fields of algae, tended by a lower class who must live with its fetid smell, who have few opportunities for advancement in society. And the matriarchal government of Aunties shares power with the Summer Prince--a man chosen each year, allowed to share in the government, and then killed as he chooses, every five years, the next Auntie who will be Queen.
When Enki, a miraculously charismatic man from the lowest social rank of the algae tenders becomes chosen as king, June's life and that of her city are changed. Because Enki isn't afraid of technology. And Enki wants the City to be a different place. And because June, and her best friend (but not boyfriend) Gil both love Enki. When June enters a partnership with Enki to create public art on a vast scale, she has no idea how far her art is going to take her and her city. Nor does she know how she can stand to watch him die when his time as the king comes to an end.
So this all is just fine. It's a nicely diverse society in Palmeres Tres, with a blending of races and same-sex relationships being totally unremarkable. The sci-fi elements were nicely imagined, and I like books centered on societal tensions, as opposed to paranormal menaces.
But somehow it fell flat for me. I think it's that I never quite cared for the characters. June in particular was unsympathetic-she has been brought up in comfort and has nothing to worry about, and never hits any truly tense notes of emotional resonance. Mostly she seems kind of whinny, and focused on her personal relationships with the two main boy characters, and her personal success as an artist, to the exclusion of much else. Though she has a sad bit of backstory related to the death of her father that has created great tension between her and her mother, and her mother's new wife, we aren't told about it until near the end (when it was so unimportant to the larger story as to be a let-down). In short, June kind of felt like an ordinary spoiled brat for most of the story, and I was never entirely on her side.
Enki, on the other hand, is perhaps too extraordinary--he is more than human, and we keep getting told how marvellously charismatic he is, and having to take that on trust, so I wasn't ever entirely empathizing with him either. So it didn't quite work for me as well as I had hoped.
Here's what distracted me as I read: when you have character named Gil (from the high status world of the city) and a character named Enki (from the low status wilder part of the world) in love with each other, you expect the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu to somehow be worked into the story in at least a metaphorically referential way. For the life of me, I wasn't able to see any the myth being played out, primarily because Gil is offstage most of the story, and June is no Inanna/Ishtar.
Down for the Barbeque