Author: Alaya Dawn Johnson
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication Year: 2013
Read: April, 2013
Genre: YA-futuristic sci-fi
Star Rating: ****1/2 (4.5)
The Quick and Dirty:
Beautiful contemplation of the interface of art, physicality and mortality, set in a militantly feminist city in future Brazil.
The Wordy Version:
In a future world where nuclear winter has destroyed whole countries, and technology has extended physical life to 200+ years and digital life indefinitely, the city of Palmares Três has become an oasis in neo-Brazil. Palmares Três, to reject the violence that destroyed the world we live in, created a government of women, led by a term-limited queen and council of aunties. Every five years the people elect a Summer King to participate in government functions and select the next queen as the current queen slits his throat in a spring ceremony.
June, the seventeen-year-old self-proclaimed best artist in Palmares Três, has been angrily grieving the death of her father two years before, when her mother’s new wife, an auntie, pulls strings so June can compete for the Queen’s Award, a prestigious scholarship. June’s attention for the last few months has been on the new Summer King, Enki, whose politics favor the lower tier of society, and she convinces him to team up with her to make a stunning work of pop art that will win her the award. As June’s love for and friendship with Enki increase, she struggles to come to grips with his impending death and the flaws of her city that Enki has shown her.
Conceptually gripping, and eloquently written, this is one of the best futuristic YA novels I’ve read. I love that Johnson has named June’s best friend, who is in love with Enki from the night of his coronation, Gil. The social situation of the characters is different from their namesakes in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but death has a different meaning until Gil and June consider Enki dying. Gil, like Gilgamesh, desperately hopes for some escape from mortality; there is no true escape though, even with the illusion of immortality seen in the disembodied personalities living in new Tokyo’s data stream.
I could go on for a bit about all the ways Johnson impressed me, but let me just make a list: June matures realistically and meaningfully (I couldn't stand how obnoxious she was initially, but by the end she had worked out her issues); other big ideas about art, technology and humanity play out and are thought-provoking; same-sex relationships are normal in Palmares Três; and the world develops beyond Palmares Três in a way that makes society there more understandable and realistic.