Review: “The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

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.

Review: ‘Obsession In Death’ (In Death #40) by J.D. Robb

Obsession in Death Cover

Before I write anything else, let me just say that I am a die-hard J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts fan. I have read almost every single book she has published so I was slightly surprised when I found out that there was a new In Death book out and I had no idea that it was even coming. Needless to say, I rushed to buy a copy and finished it in a night. As a rule, I had decided not to review books mid-series but here goes.

In Obsession In Death, the year 2060 is coming to an end and we see a very different Lieutenant Eve Dallas from how she was in Naked In Death (In Death #1). Happily married, Eve has solved a lot of high-profile murders for the New York Police and Security Department (NYPSD) and she is getting accustomed to being an object of attention, of gossip, of speculation.

But this time, she is the object of one person’s obsession. A person who thinks she is extraordinary, who believes they have a special relationship and that they are her ‘true and loyal friend’. Most importantly, this person has taken it upon themself to murder people who have slighted Eve in all her years as a cop. And if you know Eve, that is a really long list. Fighting to keep the investigation in her own hands, Eve is treading a very thin line, trying to find a murderer who knows her methods while she races to keep everyone she values safe. And Eve knows that under the offer of friendship and admiration, the biggest threat is to herself.

I found the premise of the book very interesting but the actual story was a slight let-down because I feel after 40 books, Robb is not taking much risks with what she has figured is a winning formula. The usual characters of Detectives Peabody and McNab, Captain Feeney and the rest of her squad along with her friends Mavis, Nadine Furst, Doctor Mira, Chief Medical Examiner Morris and others are simply there to make Eve realise that she has come a long way from being a snarky badass loner in the past. And of course, there is Roarke, her gorgeous Irish billionaire husband, the love of Eve’s life, a man so perfect that you know nothing bad will ever happen to him in the In Death universe.

The victims of this admirer include a defense attorney that Eve had butted heads against in a couple of past cases and a junkie informant who had once smacked Eve in the face. There are multiple attempts on people really close to Eve but nothing actually happens. This book fails to pack the punch that, say, Conspiracy In Death or New York In Dallas did. The pace of the book is impossibly slow and after a while I really started getting annoyed at the lack of action.

In the end, I’d say Obsession In Death was not one of J.D. Robb’s better works but it gave a nice overview of how Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s life has changed positively since the beginning of the series because she has now laid her past to rest and filled her life with amazing (and why always gorgeous?) people. So, basically, good chick-lit but slightly below-average crime-fiction. Because I am a fan, I’d recommend it to other people who already love the series but for people who have never read an In Death book before, this is really not a good place to start.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

So as I went over my notes on when I was reading this book, I think they can be summarized as “Reasons Why I Hate This Book”. However, since the book has been nominated for the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke Award and won the Nebula Award for Best Science-Fiction Novel, I feel like I have to justify why it wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, the date is given by the title and our solar system is a very different place.  Humans have terraformed and colonised every inhabitable planet and moon. Asteroids have been repurposed as long-haul shuttles, self-contained habitats that people live on for years or months till they reach their destination. Mercury supports a city called Terminator, which is a shielded habitat that travels around the planet on rails, pushed forward by the thermal expansion of metal at sunrise.

The protagonist is Swan Er Hong, a native of Terminator, and grand-daughter of Alex, one of the most powerful women in the solar system. Swan is impulsive, erratic and emotionally intense. Her past is full of outrageous risks and extreme creativity: having songbirds neurons implanted into her brain, eating extra-terrestrial bacteria, designing habitats in the asteroid belt and creating art on the plains of Mercury. The story opens with Swan mourning Alex’s death. An inspector from the asteroids and a diplomat from Titan (Fitz Wahram) enter her life, and Swan finds out that Alex’s death may not be due to natural causes. And then Mercury is attacked, making the situation really complicated.

Now, while all of this may sound really promising, why I thought 2312 was nothing more than an ambitious failure was its lack of a coherent storyline. Robinson has imagined a truly amazing world, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The characters don’t seem to have any concept of fiscal or practical limitation. They head across the solar system on a moment’s notice, take vacations on random asteroids and seem to have a free hand in messing with the Earth’s already too-fucked environment, with next to no repercussions.

In structure, 2312 is supposed to be a murder mystery. Swan and Wahram witnessed the attack on Terminator, survived it and then investigate it, which in turn leads them to the pre-existing fault lines their society. The problems with this are that the society hasn’t been described coherently enough for the reader to grasp the potential fault lines and Robinson has no idea about how to construct a mystery plot. Swan and Wahram’s approach is very disjointed, there is no sense of gathering clues and very little sense of drama. All of the plot revelations are dropped in Swan’s lap by another character at a convenient moment. The characters essentially do no meaningful investigation and show no investment in the outcome of the plot. When the climax comes, it is very weirdly forgettable.

There are also large sections of the book that appear to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot, and that’s where the unfortunate interval on Earth comes in. Robinson takes advantage of the scenes on Earth to do a bit of alienation and shows how foreign and strange and stifling Earth feels to someone who grew up outside of its atmosphere. Parts of this work, but he puts the plot on hold to do it. And parts of it do not work at all. The most glaring example is Swan and Wahram’s bizarre bit of attempted charity in Africa, which comes across as stunningly high-handed and arrogant. This could be in character, particularly for Swan (who is not long on empathy), but, if so, the book doesn’t signal to the reader that it should be read that way. Instead, there are some side (or snide) comments that seem to indicate Robinson knows nothing about the economic arc of Africa from the past twenty years. And when their absurd, botched, condescending charity plan fails for all the obvious reasons, the characters, and apparently the novel, throw up their hands and write Earth off as a stagnant lost cause that can’t accept the imposition of a good idea and go back to the plot, never apparently caring about Earth again.

Almost as frustrating is the way that these interludes are tied back into the story, which is usually through Swan getting ridiculously lucky on her random encounter rolls. It felt like whenever Robinson needed to make progress in the plot, Swan would just accidentally run into exactly the right person or situation to bring up the next plot point or to have some investigation make sense. (Not that Swan usually figured this out. Normally, the inspector explains it to her.) The author’s finger was planted so firmly on the scales that it destroyed my suspension of disbelief and made a mockery of the idea that the characters were actually investigating anything.

2312 is built around a skeleton of a plot, but the lack of engagement with it, the lack of tension and emotion, the way the next developments are generally narrated to the protagonists and the reader, and the repeated use of random encounters to steer it left me without much reason to care. Robinson tries a few twists, but since the story never felt committed to its plot anyway, those twists feel less like planned complications and more like another random veer in the road. It didn’t help that the final outcome was more prosaic and forgettable than the book had been implying it would be.

At the end, I would like to say that 2312 is not all that bad. The protagonists are memorable, and Robinson was brilliant at world-building and at writing the set pieces. However, the book lacked a plot and the characters needed a more coherent and complete cultural backdrop. Without these, the book just felt like reading about gorgeous moments separated by a whole lot of boring, and gave the overall impression of a construction tour rather than a story. There are bits of it I loved (especially the extended characterisation of Swam and Wahram in the tunnels of Mercury) but the book as a whole is a mess, and I can’t recommend wading through it for the good parts.