***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
This is a National Book Award longlist title, which is what drew me to it.
I have to admit that I was surprised to see that Johnson has multiple previous publications, because I initially thought The Summer Prince was an ambitious debut--a debut with a ton to recommend it, but with some holes that make it feel as if the author was not quite in control of all the threads she created. I struggled with whether the story was successful at what it was attempting, or just a lovely, crammed mess.
There are so many themes and issues, I'm not sure Johnson ended up dealing fully with them all. Age discrimination, fame vs. art, sexism, loving vs. letting go, the value vs. dehumanization of technology, dystopia masquerading as utopia, socio-economic problems and justice, representative government vs. totalitarian...I'm sure I'm missing some. The language is occasionally beautiful, with lovely Portuguese terms dotted here and there. But while sometimes Johnson's prose is excellent and lyrical, sometimes it's clunky (another reason I thought it was a debut). She has an unfortunate heavy hand with adverbs, and sometimes it seems like she chose a $100 word from the thesaurus when the penny-word would have been just right. "My mother was uncharacteristically loquacious." "It behooves me to make myself inconspicuous."
There's much to like. First, this story doesn't feel derivative. I mean, yes, it's the world destroyed after a nuclear holocaust, and a subsequent destruction of the global environment. That's been done before. And it's 400 years after that holocaust, so the technology is sci-fi and the only advanced city left is run by an artificial intelligence computer acting as a hub for all the city systems (sewer, water, electricity, transportation, communication), which has also been done before, but there's a kind of grunge to it that makes it feel somewhat like a tropical, Latin Star Wars (without the space or hovercrafts). I loved the body mods.
Most of the globe is too cold to be inhabited, so survivors became refugees 400 years ago by making their way to South America. The action takes place in Brazil (there's a side trip to Salvador that in retrospect does not feel entirely essential to the plot). The advanced city is built as a glass-pyramid and called Palmares Tres. It's built under the leadership of women, who no longer trusted men to rule society after the devastation of the planet, and so created a matriarchal system. After the great War, a plague wiped out most men, although now, 400 years later, Palmares Tres has about a 50-50 population again. Men have less authority than women, and a hierarchy of Aunties rules, with a Queen at the top who can serve two five-year terms. (Men are incidentally also the ones who cry openly, not women--which sort of presumes that the tendency to cry isn't hormonal and emotional and individual, but mostly social.) The system of government is complex enough that I notice some readers on goodreads are loudly stumped by it. But the idea is that the kings are elected--in a sort of Pop Idol way--every year, and then sacrificed by the Queen when their year is up. The kings seem to want the job, because their sacrifice keeps morale up through tradition and because they have an important job as the city's sacred representative in electing the Queen. (This tradition is the least believable part of the system.) The Queen is chosen by a Sun King every five years, and basically given a "vote of confidence" to stay in office the other four years by the annual Moon Kings. The kings elect her or keep her in office when she slashes their throat and they either imprint her with their blood or gesture to her. The Moon Kings have a pretty much ceremonial job, since the Queen is the only woman on the alter when their throats are slashed. The Sun Kings--which we never see in this story--have more power because they choose from among all the Aunties.
Our heroine, June, has a tense home life. Because of advances in technology, people live to be 200 years old or more, and thus many people die through "kiri"--killing themselves when they've had enough. June's dad died two years before the novel starts because he killed himself at something like age 140. June's mother remarried an Auntie (whose name I can't spell for you, since I listened to an audibook). June and her mother don't get along, and although June's stepmom is kind to her, June resents her. June has a best friend, Gil, who seems at first to be familiar enough to be her boyfriend (always touching and stroking), but she quickly tells you he's her best friend (later she tells you that they also "solved their virginity problem" together). Bisexuality, homosexuality, multiple partners, and sex in general are commonplace in the novel, without commentary, which I think is a brave choice. Not because of the hysterical prudes who are stomping on it on goodreads, but because it could seem grossly stereotypical to say, "Hmm, Brazil is so passionate in the 21st century, let's just guess that it's going to let it all hang out in the 25th century!"
June is an "artist" in this book, and I use the air quotes deliberately. I'm tired of novelists pasting onto their main characters the "passion" of art, where it's all graffiti, performance art, public art, and stunts that pass as "installations," but--look!--the character is soooo naturally talented! June states this explicitly: "Transgression is part of what makes art work." Well, I'm here to say, years of training is what makes you a great artist, while clever or shocking ideas make you...well, a contemporary artist, I guess. Anyway, June uses her subversive public art to help a boy named Enki get elected as Summer King, and Gil and Enki start a passionate affair on the night of his coronation. (Moon Kings are famous for "screwing like May flies," and have no intimate relations with queens.) Gil falls in love, June is jealous because she was attracted to Enki, too.
There's an entire sub-plot--but in the end did it need to be there?--in which June is nominated for a coveted art award by the Queen, which is a year-long contest, and she decides to team up with the Summer King, Enki, to do a giant public art installation that will also have a subversive political message. There's a lot of repetition from her, in first-person, about how much she wants to win this award, to honor her dad. This felt like "telling" to me, rather than in keeping with her true personality; when June's strong feelings of justice are offended by the contest, she plugs away at it anyway, telling us why the whole time.
It's funny, looking on goodreads I see that this is only 289 pages long, but it felt much longer (the audiobook is just shy of 12 hours). Maybe the typeface is tiny and it's longer than I think. Or it could just feel long because of the exhausting number of issues and themes tackled, and the subtle slips where Johnson gets repetitive (she tells us three times that the Tokyo 10 ambassador is over 300 years old, as if we don't remember, and that after June and Gil become celebrities through their association with Enki, they actually enjoy going to school because the camera bots aren't allowed inside the school).
Ah, and my Libertarian complaint: the socio-economic/political message is a bit screwed up. Enki comes from "the Vergi," which is the lowest, poorest tier of the city's pyramid, exposed to the ocean's tropical storms (which kill many people each year). The city is powered by stinky but beautiful algae vats (really? A City of Lights, loaded with electronic everything?)--vats that the miserable people in the Vergi have to tend. It's a hard-scrabble life on Tier 1, and yet...the whole plot of the book revolves around a technological revolt that comes from the Vergi. The Aunties who rule the city are Traditionalists who want to keep technology frozen where it has been for the last 100 years, and yet the people of the Vergi have incredible tech, including floating weapons that shapeshift from cages into guns. How can a dirt-poor social class develop the most advanced weaponry and technology in the city? And is it really likely that leaders of the most important city in the world would reject powerful technology?
There are dropped threads and a few inconsistencies that may only bother me--but I think they're there because the plot became a bit unwieldy for Johnson. For instance, part of June's evaluation for the art award will include her grades at school, and she has historically been at the top of her class. When she begins to fail at school, the Queen fudges a test score to keep her in the running, but then in the next chapters June randomly decides to stop going to school for weeks because she's ashamed of that help. It seems unlikely she could remain the top student, even via fudged test scores, if everyone sees that she's a chronic truant. Little things are tossed out at the beginning that are sort of red herrings because nothing comes of them. (June tells us an important Auntie named Issa has been an Auntie for 50 years but has never put her name in to be Queen, which turns out to have no significance; one of the Moon King contestants along with Enki is a beautiful poet who writes love poems to a mysterious girl everyone is dying to uncover, but nothing comes of either his poetry or the girl.) There seems to be virtually no point to the fact that June's stepmom is an Auntie, except to provide convenient plot tools here and there.
And finally, I was disappointed that after a seemingly meaningful affair with Gil, it turned out in the end that really our heroine was Enki's true love, and he just wasn't telling her all along. It seemed like a concession to the readers, more than reflective of Enki's behavior until then.