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Someday My Printz Will Come
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The Summer Prince, a Printz Indeed (says I)

The Summer Prince cover The Summer Prince, a Printz Indeed (says I)The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson
Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic), March 2013
Reviewed from ARC and finished ebook

I’ve already gone on record saying that this is my personal frontrunner this year. It’s the book, above all other books, that worked for me as a reader and that I can support as a critic. If I were on the RealPrintz committee this year, I would have nominated this and I’d be passionately and loudly singing its praises in hopes that everyone could be convinced.

But in order to convince everyone, I need to marshal my arguments.

So here goes.

Genre books tend to fare badly at major awards, so this may be praise that damns, but this is seriously well written science fiction, of the post-apocalyptic flavor. That’s been the flavor of the year, frankly (even if we call it dystopian most of the time) so it’s particularly notable how utterly, unexpectedly original Palmares Tres and its wider world are. Johnson has taken the world we live in, the past, religion, human nature, and the nature of societies to create her world, which is both familiar and entirely alien.

One of the major complaints, admittedly, is that many readers can’t visualize the tiered glass pyramid that is Palmares Tres. That didn’t bother me. I can visualize the green of the Verde, the spider bots in the structure, and many of the other details — indeed, the wealth of detail makes it all that much easier to imagine. When the lights go out the third time, I understood how immense that was: Enki and his nanotechnology and mods have literally changed their world. Power has shifted. It was a big, chilling moment — a moment that brought tears to my eyes (and does so each time I read the final few lines) because the world was realized so vividly that I was there.

Gushing, what? Maybe a little, but clearly for this reader, the world was evoked vividly enough — and Palmares Tres is enough of a character in her own right — to make it matter, which for me indicates that there is enough there, even if it doesn’t work for all readers. I found myself thinking about Reeve’s Hungry Cities books and how the traction cities are so improbable and yet no one complained about them in my experience (I’m pretty sure at least one of these was discussed in my time on BBYA, so I have discussed them with other adult readers). I think that there is a lot in The Summer Prince that makes the reader think, and read the novel with close attention, which in turn might make it harder to just accept the world without a lot of thought, but overthinking the physical space can be distracting. Like I said, it did work for me, but even if it didn’t, there are enough strengths here that I’d probably still list this in my top five.

I also appreciated the ways Palmares Tres had a society and government rooted in religion, but religion that has changed — which religion does. The social structure makes so much sense as the outcome of the dark times that precede their government; the reaching back in time to ancient rituals, the use of death as a kind of power play; the Summer Kings are literally paying for the sins of the world. It’s pagan and Christian and deeply rooted in anthropological logic; of course this is the future. Looked at as world-building it’s masterful; as science fiction it’s brilliant because it makes sense in the context of now, while managing to avoid the now cliched scenarios we see too often (reality TV; fundamental Christianity; corporation as government).

Thematically, too, this is a powerful read. Art, love, friendship, sacrifice, passion, the role of the individual, the greater good — big ideas, but woven in so seamlessly (even more so than September Girls, where the themes are subtle but fairly explicitly explored nonetheless; here, much of it is never explicitly stated). Art is the thing that is probably the most obvious; June is an artist, interested in the meaning of art; her father was an artist as well, and what creativity means for humanity and life is explored through both of their experiences. Art, quite clearly, is life for the artist. When her father lost the music, he could not live anymore despite loving his wife and child. Friendship and love run a close second, and the complexities of both were refreshing, which probably doesn’t count as a literary merit on its own but gets back to the exemplary world building. Sexuality is confronted openly; orientation has the potential to be fluid and matters only inasmuch as it leads to relationships, which matter immensely — but it’s not a utopia. There’s some racism, definitely xenophobia, plenty of gender tension, and ageism to a massive degree. They’ve just gotten past the question of who can sleep with who, which in turn opens up the space for this nuanced exploration of love. Love here is multi-faceted. Agape, eros, philia — in high school, I learned about the four kinds of love the Ancient Greeks defined. Love might be romantic or brotherly or spiritual or focused on humanity, which my history teacher pointed out really meant love for one’s city, given the importance of national identity in Ancient Greece. June cycles through all of these, and finds herself big enough to love everyone in the end, even the Aunties, even if she dislikes them and all they stand for. She grows from spoiled and self centered to mature and able to look well beyond her own desires.

The relationships here move the plot. Parents and children, both the actual parents and children (June, with her mother and stepmother and her father; Enki with his mother; Gil with his mother) and the city and its citizens, loom large, but friendship and passion actually move the plot moment to moment. Everything is urgent; a clock is ticking, time is running out, so that the adolescent passion makes sense. It really is all a matter of life and death.

There is, perhaps, a kind of intellectualism in the approach that detracts from some of the emotional connection, but I’d classify this more as a slow burn; investment grows as June grows and as Enki’s death approaches. It’s not when Enki dies that the climax hits (although that moment is pretty thrilling, in terms of the coup he stages); it’s when he lives.

I couldn’t read this the first time I tried; I think it’s not an easy or obvious book. I started, stopped, and only months later tried again. But I’ve read it twice in full and browsed through it since, and it only gets stronger each time I come back to it. Is it perfect? No. No book is. But for my money, it’s as close as 2013 has come.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Shelley says:

    This is definitely one of my favorite books of 2013. This intricate story interweaves gender, power, religious, and race issues seamlessly. And against the backdrop of this multifaceted and future world full of art, love, and sacrifice, the characters shine. I did feel that June’s best friend and Enki’s lover (I can’t remember his name) was quite forgettable, and I’m not sure why everyone was so in love with him.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Gil? I think he’s there to be a foil; June and Enki’s relationship isn’t, at it’s core, sexual, so Gil provides that aspect; his presence deflects that question from June. Also he sort of falls into gay best friend territory (which is a bit central casting and a flaw), so I am surprised that you know people who love him. I liked him. But mostly because of the ways he provides a counterbalance to June and because of his relationship with his own too-young mother. I am much more enamored of friend/rival Bebel — that relationship is brilliant, although relatively slight in page count. June’s realization that Bebel is actually her friend is perhaps the most significant single moment in June’s progression from self-obsessed to worthy ruler, tiny as it is. Also, their friendship/rivalry is funny and real; I know this relationship. I’ve had a version of it; it’s what happens, often, with people who are a little too alike.

  2. Maureen E says:

    I agree with a lot of this–I think The Summer Prince was an extremely impressive book in many ways, both from a personal reading perspective and a Printzly one. I haven’t re-read it yet, but in my memory it’s one of those extremely immersive books. I could practically feel the air of Palmares Tres (so in that way, the lack of visuals didn’t bother me at all). I also loved the themes of art and identity, the way it looked face on at power structures. And there were some really powerful moments, as you (Karyn) mention.

    I do have a few niggling questions, though. First, there’s the issue of accuracy. While I didn’t notice this (as a white American reader) I have read several reviews from Brazilian Portuguese readers which called into question some of Johnson’s worldbuilding choices, specifically with regard to things like language and music. I’m thinking particularly here of Ana’s review at The Book Smugglers, though there are others. I can certainly see a case for a reading that sees it as a more blended society where things have shifted, but I’m not sure the that quite works either. Because I don’t have any personal investment, it wasn’t an issue for my reading experience (also, I believe I read TSP before that review came out), but it remains something I’m a bit hesitant about.

    Second, I found the way the names of June, Gil, and Enki evoked the Gilgamesh myth without the rest of the story really following through with that promise to be a bit distracting. This is a much, much smaller quibble than above, but it did affect my reaction to the book. I could see it being argued as a lack of cohesion, though that’s probably putting it too strongly.

    And, this is a fairly nebulous feeling and I don’t have specific citations for backup, nor is it exactly a Printzly criteria. On the other hand, it’s one of the most lasting associations I have with TSP, so I’m mentioning it. I am still thinking about June’s privilege; I generally found her journey from self-absorbed and privileged to subversive artist to be very powerful and well done, and I really appreciated (as I said above) the ways in which the story addressed issues of privilege and power head-on. But I couldn’t help mulling over that choice to tell the story from that point of view. It’s not fair to evaluate a book on what it is not, and yet. The ultimate effect of the book is to challenge those power structures–and yet. I’m still not sure what my actual conclusion is, but it’s certainly a factor in my loving the book a little less than it probably deserves.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this gets a sticker, or unhappy if it does. But with those niggles still unresolved, it probably wouldn’t be my pick.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Totally missed the Gilgamesh reference, whoops. I’ll need to think about that.

      As far as the concerns raised in the Book Smugglers post… longer response to follow. I have concerns about cultural misappropriation, for sure (witness my discomfort with In Darkness last year), but I also think this is a work of science fiction and that does matter. I need to think this through in a bit more depth before saying more, but in terms of the Printz, if In Darkness passed the accuracy bar, this certainly should.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Gilgamesh: Now that I’ve refreshed my memory of Gilgamesh and thought about it, I don’t find myself bothered by lack of a deeper parallel — a reference to another epic love and also to a tale of wildness tamed works for me here without needing the reference to be more/deeper. But the fact that I missed the reference completely on my own may also just indicate that I don’t care enough about the original story for abuse or seeming disregard of it to rate much for me!

  3. Jen J. says:

    This is my favorite book of 2013 hands down – which poses a slight problem in terms of the Printz: How much of what I think is great is simply stuff that hits my reading spot? This reminds me of Ship Breaker in many ways which I also loved. The complex themes of power dynamics, technology, art, and privilege built around an exciting world unlike anything I’d seen or read about before with interesting cultural meshing from a variety of sources all wrapped up in the puzzle of what exactly is going on?? I don’t remember where in the comments it was or who – but someone mentioned that they felt they could write a literary paper about September Girls. That’s how I feel about The Summer Prince.

    However, when we discussed this at the small in person Mock Printz I attended, I was completely unable to sway the rest of the table. They hated it and nothing I said was convincing them otherwise. They didn’t understand the language, the world building was sloppy, the cultural misappropriation was problematic. It made me realize why committee members take notes and marshal arguments ahead of time and re-read for depth over and over again, because I felt woefully unprepared. It also makes me think that this doesn’t have as good a shot as I hoped at any sort of sticker – since the name of the game is consensus.

  4. Miss Print says:

    I just finished this one last night and am still processing. The world building here is, without question, top notch. Johnson does an excellent job with it. The story structure, while messy in some respects, works and tightened the plot in clever ways as both Enki’s and June’s paths unfold. That said this story felt very high concept. I could sooner see it being read in a college class on art and literature or culture than I could see it being picked up as a pleasure read.

    The characters were often one-dimensional in their motivations and despite the short page length, it felt like the story dragged and dragged with several plot reveals coming too late to hold any real significance. Johnson starts a great discussion about art–high concept, performance and transgressive–but with the stopping point of the story she also leaves much of that discussion unfinished.

    My biggest sticking point was the age structure here. First I don’t think the book is Young Adult in many senses of the word. June is a teenager but that doesn’t mean the same thing in her world as it does here and many of her choices are not the decisions of a teenager but a grown up. But that also doesn’t work given the constructs of the world here.

    The story posits that people can live for centuries and everyone under 30 (wakas) are seen as little more than children. Given the prolonged life span it’s fair to argue that they really are children (30 even seemed a low cutoff to mark adulthood when we’re talking about people who are 150 or older). Why then are all of these children–young people even by modern standards–treated like adults? June is diminished and dismissed for her youth throughout the story but is also doing everything adults do from a very young age (younger even than the 17ish years she is during the novel). This disconnect became distracting and made me question every other societal choice in Palmares Tres–why is her school structure largely the same as our own is one big question that came up for me.

    It was great seeing this post-heterosexual, pan-sexual society where love wasn’t always a black-and-white binary structure. But at the same time the dynamic between Gil and Enki and June felt off somehow. June says throughout the story that Gil and Enki are deeply in love–something both characters affirm repeatedly–yet in the end, when a decision has to be made, it isn’t Gil who Enki tries to run away with. It’s June. Gil gives June a pass for this saying she tried to save him at least, saying if Enki had to be with someone else at least it was June. But the decision still felt strange and ill-fitted with everything else that happened between these three characters.

    I could absolutely see this book getting an Honor. The skill taken in this writing is obvious. However I still can’t help thinking that the story would have made so much more sense if it had been marketed to an adult audience as a story about twenty-somethings.

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