The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

 

The Summer Prince

June Costa’s art is her life, and she crafts her life to be her art. This radical theme resonates through the character and through the cataclysmic events that unfold within one year in her society, events at whose center she stands, an artist hero such as I have not seen expressed before in literature. June Costa makes public art in a city of future Brazil, art that might be described as techno spectacle, everything from graffiti that transforms mountains to holo murals that carry scent. In her resistance to governmental limits, this protagonist changes herself and affects her whole society.

The author does such a job of world-building that I feel I could book a ticket to Palmares Tres. Not a dystopian setting, but rather, a post-apocalyptic setting, June’s society has started over. There is conflict between the government-sanctioned isolationist policy and the protesting technophiles, labeled extremists by the powers-that-be, the Aunties who can rule for centuries. June is from but not of, their upper tier way of thinking.

Alaya Johnson uses an interspersed second narrative voice, daring if not consistently effective. This is the voice of Enki, born poor and dark and wild and creative, voted Summer Prince by the people for his dazzling dance art. When June becomes artistically involved with Enki, he becomes the catalyst for her questioning her artistic ethics regarding, for example, art’s ownership, the cost of artistic defiance, and how to perceive  cultural patterns when society is changing so rapidly. Together, June and Enki make political art. Or is it authentic art, which happens to speak to the people in a political time?

Is The Summer Prince at heart a story of the struggle to balance freedom and security? Is it a profound love story, with an array of multicultural characters as the Lovers? Is the core of the story an artist’s coming of age about the power of her craft? Is the Summer Prince a parable about the responsibilities of power? Yes and yes and yes and yes. Besides life as art, other high concepts in this novel stretch the reader in regard to gender, sex and relationship boundaries, about death and aging, about technologies that augment and modify but ultimately destroy the body. There are plot point confusions, but for me, the energy of the imaginings easily lifts the story past them. I look forward to more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

 

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