The Summer Prince
by Alaya Dawn Johnson
In the future city of Palmares Tres, located in modern-day Brazil, a Summer King is elected every five years. In a city ruled by women, the position holds little power--the main purpose of a Summer King is to reaffirm the right of the Queen to reign for another five years. This affirmation is given as the Summer King dies, sacrificed on an altar, his throat slit by the Queen herself. When June Costa's father takes her to see her first Summer King sacrificed, she is eight-years old and horrified by the bloody practice. However, by the time she is eighteen she is used to the tradition, but everything changes the year Enki, a beautiful, defiant young man, is elected as Summer King. The entire city falls in love with Enki--including June and her best friend, Gil. Like June, Enki is an artist, and together they produce some incredible art that shakes the very foundations of the principles their city is built upon. But unlike June, Enki wasn't raised in privilege, and his willingness to sacrifice his life to be Summer King is rooted in a purpose more radical than June is willing to accept. The closer June gets to Enki, the harder it is to accept his impending death. In the end, June will have to choose whether following the rules to achieve her dream of becoming a successful artist is more important than her principles.
I've seen this book categorized as steampunk but that's not entirely accurate. The theme of technology--its value, dangers, and consequences--is a strong vein running through the book, but the setting is anything but Victorian. Palmares Tres is a pyramid city, build high above the ocean, in a future Brazil that is part of a world still ravaged by the wars and plagues of past centuries. June was an interesting protagonist; her longing to make meaningful art made her likable, while her spoiled rich girl behavior was grating. Johnson's creation of a fully-dimensional supporting cast of characters (every character in this book is a POC, by the way) is admirable, as is her ability to make such a technology-driven future world believable and (in general) understandable. I found her choice to weave in modern views of race intriguing and slightly disappointing, but the commentary on class and lack of heteronormativity far more compelling. Perhaps it is naive of me, but I don't like to think that a society so far in the future would have the same issues with colorism that we have today. I would hope we'd evolved beyond that by then (whether this is a realistic hope or not, I cannot say).
A worthwhile read for fans of dystopian lit.