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.