In the 17th century, fugitive slaves founded a free community in the mountains of northeastern Brazil. They called it Palmares. Contemporary accounts describe the courtyards and the fountains, the churches and council meetings of that sprawling settlement, which survived for decades before a concerted military effort by Portuguese colonists wiped it out in 1695.
Fast-forward several centuries, past a nuclear apocalypse that has scrambled climates and countries, and we come to the founding of Palmares Tres, the great pyramid-shaped city on a Brazilian bay, where author Alaya Dawn Johnson sets her new young-adult novel, The Summer Prince. Founded and ruled by women, the city ascends in tiers — from the algae-farm slums at its base to the queen’s quarters at its tip — and it runs on a rich, strange mix of nanotechnology and archaic ritual.
The first queens of Palmares Tres devised a unique system of transferring power: Each woman can rule for up to two five-year terms. Every five years, the city elects a Summer King, who rules for one year with all the charisma of a rock star — and then dies in bloody sacrifice, choosing the next queen with his dying breath; a dying man’s choice is thought to be incorruptible. As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa recalls the first time she saw the sacrifice. “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die,” she says. “Queen Serafina stood in a stark room of wood and stone – the high shrine. I liked her because her skin was dark and glossy and her hair silk-smooth. I had even gotten a Queen Serafina doll for my birthday last June. But today her face was fierce and still; today she held a blade in her hand.”
June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.
It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual it is to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual it is to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.
With all this going on, Johnson doesn’t ignore her world-building. With grace and precision, The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old-fashioned science fiction storytelling. Johnson has created a city that lives and breathes on the page, its samba rhythms and sea breezes balanced by algae stink and rusting spiderbots. Palmares Tres pulses with a vibrant mix of high tech and Brazilian tradition. (Seriously, I want this book to be made into a movie, and I want Bonde do Role to do the soundtrack.) By the time June and Enki pull off their final work of art, you will love the city every bit as much as they do.