The Sirens Review Squad is made up of Sirens volunteers, who submit short reviews of books (often fantasy literature by women authors) they’ve read and enjoyed. If you’re interested in sending us a review to run on the blog, please email us! Today, we welcome a review from Kayla Shifrin on Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince.
The Teenager’s Closed Pyramid: A Review of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince
Any review of The Summer Prince would be incomplete without dwelling, in detail, on the grand city of Palmares Tres. A soaring glass pyramid, divided into tiers that re-enforce class divisions, crawling with technologies that alternately soothe and spy on its citizens – Palmares Tres is life breathed into glass, and the reader sees and hears every inch of the city as the protagonist June passes through it. Her friend and lover, the doomed Summer King Enki, can literally feel the heartbeat of their city in every cell of his nanotech-enhanced body. Still, there’s a flaw in the gorgeous world of Palmares Tres. It’s not the pyramid, it’s not the technology, and it’s not the stubborn, driven, occasionally bratty June – not exactly. The problem is that the world of The Summer Prince is a teenager’s world. I don’t mean “the story is centered on a teenager”; I mean that the narrative itself conforms to a teenager’s understanding, desire, and political perspective. There’s a subtle but important difference in YA fiction between writing a teenage protagonist and writing a teenage world.
June, like many YA heroines and all good teenagers, has figured out that her civilization is founded on complete and utter bullshit. She loves her city, but the entire pyramid is rife with lies and inequality. The adults who run it are various combinations of cruel, stupid, and cynical. Traditions and taboos are enforced out of hatred and fear – especially fear of young people, change, and anything associated with either. All societies devour their children, but Palmares Tres does so literally: the teenage Summer King is sacrificed every few years in order to maintain the dominance of a corrupt matriarchy. At the end of the story, the brilliant, transcendent Enki engineers his sacrifice so that June can be named the new Queen of Palmares Tres. Once enthroned, June rewrites the law so that no Summer King will ever have to die again.
Our new queen June proves herself to be obnoxious, judgmental, self-righteous, loving, devoted, passionate, and ambitious. She’s consumed by the desire to do the right thing but frequently makes tactical mistakes, mostly when she fails to understand other people’s feelings and motivations. In other words, she’s a perfectly realistic teenager. But teenagers, generally speaking, don’t make very good political leaders. Their diagnosis of social problems is absolutely correct – “this is all total bullshit” – but their prescribed treatment – “I should run the world” – is not a cure. An enlightened despot is still a despot. June may be sympathetic toward the people of the slums at the bottom of the pyramid, but it’s hard to imagine how a privileged eighteen-year girl could single-handedly fix an entrenched economic disaster zone. Even if she tried, it’s hard to imagine that the despised council of Aunties – who still hold significant political power in the city – wouldn’t just assassinate her as soon as they had the chance.
But The Summer Prince is content to end with June ascending the throne. Revolutions, as we discussed at the last Sirens conference, aren’t easy. They aren’t easy in real life and they shouldn’t be easy in fiction. Removing a bad leader from power and replacing him/her with a good one is a start, but it doesn’t remove the entrenched inequalities that fed the system in the first place. At best, it’s a symbolic move, and symbols can’t fix societies. They can only provide focus and direction.
June is tricked into becoming queen, but the decision to remain queen – and therefore become a symbol – is entirely her own. As “the best artist in Palmares Tres”, her canvas is frequently her own body, or images of herself. Her collaborative projects with Enki culminate in her queenship, where she’s fully transformed into the living embodiment of the movement toward youth and growth and political change. Enki has a very uneasy relationship with self-as-symbol, but June blithely accepts her new role. She grieves over her dead friend, of course, but never appears to doubt she’ll transcend their social order even after Enki was crushed beneath it.
Maybe The Summer Prince, for all its focus on inequality, isn’t really opposed to the concept. Maybe hierarchies are only a problem – from June’s point of view – if the wrong symbol sits on top. The mean and bitter old lady, instead of the totally reasonable teenage girl. Maybe June’s revolution fails because it’s not really meant to succeed.
But I wanted a revolution. I wanted June’s teenage perspective to open up, dilating into the larger, messier world of adulthood. I wanted her to realize the old queen was more than just a symbol of authoritarianism and stagnation – she was a person, with thoughts and intentions. I wanted June to notice that sometimes leaders have to compromise if they plan to keep their heads. More than anything, I wanted June to grow up.
Maturity doesn’t necessarily mean cynicism or amorality. Stories don’t always have to descend into grimdark, where leadership is always diabolical or stupid and getting worse. But a coming of age story – like a revolution – is a journey. It doesn’t end in the same small place where it began, but opens up into a strange, uncertain world. All the glorious imagery of Palmares Tres, the ambiguity of its perspectives – from the heights of the ballroom looking down through a glass floor into the mists of the slum, from the slum gazing up at the unreachable, glamorous palace above – all of this would have benefited and been enriched by a more complex, maturing, evolving ending.
Kayla Shifrin lives in Brooklyn with her husband, a very large pile of books, and two cats who are possibly demons. She writes sometimes and reads constantly, and would read in her sleep if that were a thing, and hopes someday that will be a thing.