Before I get into the meat of my first post here at our Reading Corner, let me introduce myself! I’m Jen Jazwinski, also known as Ms. Jen by some of our younger patrons, and I’m the Young Adult Librarian here at the Algonquin Area Public Library. My focus is on working with teens and young adults and you’ll see me at the Adult Reference Desk sometimes. I love to read young adult and children’s literature, but I also love almost anything genre – particularly regency romances, mysteries, paranormals and fantasy. Two things my favorite books almost always have are at least a little humor and some well defined female characters. I’m starting off here with a young adult book published this year that I absolutely adored – on to The Summer Prince!
June Costa is 18 years old and obsessed with becoming the best artist in Palmares Três – a pyramid city in what used to be Brazil before the Y Plague wiped out 70 percent of the male population, before the dirty bombs, before the nuclear wars and the freezing and the southern migrations. Older women called Aunties rule in Palmares Três. After all, look what male rulers did to the world. Palmares Três has a King only once every five years. At the end of a king year, the king is sacrificed and with his dying breath names the new Queen with word or gesture in a ritual that has lasted for hundreds of years. This year’s Summer King is Enki – Enki who is only 18 years old, Enki whose skin is darker than the gene modifications are supposed to allow, Enki from the verde – the lowest level of the pyramid city, Enki who June and her best friend Gil adore from afar until they actually meet and sparks fly. By the time Enki, June, and Gil are done, they and Palmares Três will never be the same.
To understand the world of Palmares Três takes work, but it’s well worth it. Johnson naturally reveals clues to how society has recreated itself following apocalyptic events through June’s thoughts and feelings as she starts to better understand her place in her city. Palmares Três has a vibrant culture with roots in Brazil, Africa, Japan, Catholicism, and Candomblé and the evolution of language as depicted here plays with all those cultures – verde for the algae infested lower pyramid tiers, kiri for assisted suicide, waka for the young people, grande for the older people. Johnson manages to convey all this without info dumps and still keeps June’s character as a privileged Tier 8 teenager consistent. June is far from perfect – easily caught up in how she’s perceived, particularly as an artist, constantly faltering from her ideals, resentful of her mother and her mother’s new wife, but June’s also open to new ideas, a thoughtful artist, brave and intelligent – even if she’s almost always a step behind Enki and the Aunties.
Like all the best science fiction, Johnson tackles big ideas and sticky issues. Johnson extrapolates on how society as a whole might change with certain advances. For example, what would it look like if lives were extended so that people could live for 200 years? Adulthood might come later and teenagers might be feared and controlled even more than they are now. Assisted suicide might become an accepted choice for those who feel they cannot continue their lives through such a span. Johnson also tackles issues we face today such as how big a role technology should play in our lives. Should the government be in control of how much and what kinds of technology are available? When does technology become detrimental to life? When does using outdated technology become unacceptably dangerous? Johnson ably presents multiple viewpoints, showing that while technology is one type of tool, neither good nor evil, it is a dangerously powerful tool that can be used in service to both.
What’s amazing is that these are only a fraction of the topics Johnson explores – there’s also the power of art and music, the myth of matriarchal societies automatically being altruistic, and socioeconomic justice. All while giving us characters that are true to life and easy to sympathize with even when their actions are reprehensible. All while keeping track of a plot that twists and turns. All from a debut novelist. So, yeah – I loved this book – and I hope someone else out there has read it, because I’d love to talk with you about these meaty themes and what you think is next for June and Alaya Dawn Johnson!
If The Summer Prince sounds fantastic to you, here’s a couple other titles to check out:
Feed by M.T. Anderson
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” So begins M.T. Anderson’s futuristic story of consumerist teens with computer feeds directly wired into their brains. Bombarded with information and commercials every second of the day, Titus lives for his feed. Then he meets Violet who wants to fight the feed and everything changes.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Copper wiring, aluminum, nickel, even steel clips and tiny staples – this is the “treasure” Nailer’s light scavenge crew sweats and scrapes to retrieve from the hulking wrecks of tanker ships. Ship breaking is a hard life, the crew face possible death or permanent injury every day, but it puts at least a meager amount of food in their mouths. Nailer hates scavenge work and avoids his druggie father, but he gets by as best he can even as he worries about what he’ll do when he gets too big for the tight spaces that hold the best scavenge. Everyone dreams of the lucky strike that might take them to the top of the ship breaking heap or even away from the destroyed beachfront, but lucky strikes are one in a million. Then, after a hurricane, Nailer finds the fanciest storm-wrecked ship he’s ever seen – days before anyone else knows it exists. With scavenge from this lucky strike he could be set for life. Only one thing stands in his way: Nita – the one survivor of the shipwreck – a swank, beautiful girl. Inspired by real Bangladeshi ship breakers, Bacigalupi has created a fascinating, near-future world devastatingly changed by technology and ecology in ways that seem quite possible.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Wade Watts spends as much time as possible in the virtual world of the OASIS, and he spends a lot of that time trying to figure out the puzzle that Halliday, creator of the OASIS left behind. Whoever solves that puzzle will be given control of OASIS and since most of the world spends it’s time there, that control will equal enormous power. When Wade stumbles across the first challenge, it’s not long before competitors the world over are after him – including a nefarious corporation – and the race is on. Steeped in the culture of the 1980s, Ready Player One is a particularly fun listen with narration from Wil Wheaton.
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
A story of the alien invasion that focuses on Gratuity “Tip” Tucci and renegade Boov mechanic J.Lo and their road trip across the U.S., The True Meaning of Smekday made me laugh more than any other science fiction story I’ve read while still making me think. The hardest part is trying to decide whether to recommend the book with it’s hilarious illustrations or the audiobook with masterful narration from Bahni Turpin – in the end, I say grab both and flip back and forth as needed!