Last month (so long ago! we were but pale young curates then) I instructed you to acquire for yourself a copy of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince. Did you do it? You marvelous kittens; you may have some pie. As for the rest of you, you are cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Go watch the Divergent trailer, or something.
Let us admit this together: how long into the book did it take you to realize that Enki and Gil are just nicknames for Enkidu and Gilgamesh from The Epic of Gilgamesh? Guys, I TOLD you I was garbage at picking up on metaphors. And then it works on so many levels: the systemic oppression, the difference between civilized city life and the “freedom” of the plains, the love triangle with Shamhat, the homoeroticism, the struggle with death…
“He was yearning for one to know his heart, a friend.”
RIGHT, THOUGH? Did everyone figure this out right away? Did you see the names Enki and Gil and chuckle knowingly to yourself, thanks to your always-on-point knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian literature? You think you’re so great. You’re not that great.
Things that were so great about this book:
1. June’s relationship with her mother’s new wife, Auntie Yaha. If there is one thing I can get behind, it is resenting characters on a protagonist’s behalf. I can’t help myself. If a protagonist hates someone, so do I. Every time I watch Fiddler on the Roof, I’m furious with Tevye for even thinking about forgiving Chava for marrying that Russian Gentile, which is ridiculous because I’m not even Jewish and also I support interfaith marriages. The point is that I love when YA novels have complicated, nuanced parent-child relationships instead of a bunch of Peanuts-style background adults, and I slowly came around and started liking Auntie Yaha too.
2. Gays. Gays everywhere. Just being gay and nobody even cares. Just normal gays running around falling in gay love at a dance. How much did the scene where Enki and Gil first meet remind you of that scene from West Side Story where Tony meets Maria? Only instead of a white guy and a white girl pretending to have a Puerto Rican accent, it’s two Brazilian dudes who are really excellent at doing the samba?
3. It’s a set in a (only semi-dystopian) future that’s not exclusively dominated by Brutalist architecture and brown-grey paint! Everyone isn’t grim and starving and covered in dirty rags! (Well. There appears to be some minor starving going on in El Salvador.) They have hairstyles and jewelry and arguments and throw parties and wear red, just like all other humans everywhere.
4. June. June is kind of a self-absorbed asshole, which I find entirely relatable in a protagonist, in the right amount. She…let us say that she does not grasp Enki’s struggle. “Let’s make art! Rebellion is so fun! Wow, Enki, your friends are really poor, huh.” It takes her some time to stop playing at revolution; she’s very much the Marius to his Eponine (because ADMIT that Marius was a total dilettante when it came to overthrowing the government, and was in fact totally relieved not to be heroically dead like all his friends, no matter how sad he sounds during “Empty Chairs.”) She cares a lot more about status and comfort than she would like to admit. She’s capable of saying vicious things to the people who care about each other. She’s a good artist, but not as good as she thinks she is, at least not at first. She’s a braggart, and she’s talented, and she knows it, and I love that about her. She’s a jerk, but she’s a jerk with so much potential.
5. People die in this book and they stay dead, and then the living have to figure out how to deal with it.
6. People, young people, have sex in this book, generally good sex but also some ill-advised sex, gay sex and straight sex, and then they continue being alive and go on to do other things.
7. There are no white people in this book.
8. Do you remember the physical sensation of longing? Of wanting so desperately to be famous — to be talented and to do good work, yes, but mostly just to be fucking famous and important and better than other people — that it hurts your guts and make you act like a shitty person? This book remembers.
Things that were not so great about this book:
1. Bebel. I wanted to know so much more about Bebel, and Lucia, and another half-dozen of the supporting characters who were just barely developed. I’d be willing to lose a third of the time June spends mooning over Gil and Enki to see a few more scenes with Bebel that really justify their eventual mutual respect and friendship.
2. I think there are two kinds of science fiction readers: the ones who are here for the world-building and the ones who are here for the stories (this is probably a gross exaggeration and not at all true, but it’s my website; shut up). This had some great stabs at world-building (a South American matriarchy flourishes in a pyramid city after nuclear war and a mysterious male-only sickness wipe out a huge chunk of the global population? Yes, please), but a lot of important questions were hand-waved away or clumsily exposited when it didn’t need to be. There are more of those “As you know…” sentences that plague so many sci-fi/fantasy novels than are strictly necessary.
3. There are times when June’s art feels more of a MacGuffin than anything else. She tells us she’s the best artist in Palmares Tres, but it’s such a generic and amorphous understand of what art is that it doesn’t feel nearly as sharp or immediate as her feelings for Enki.
4. Gil. Poor Gil. He loves to dance until he passes out and he loves having sex with Enki, and that’s…kind of it. His relationship with Enki is supposed to be endgame — June always knows that Gil comes first in Enki’s heart — but there is so much more time spent on her connection with Enki, their growing understanding of one another, their work together, that it feels like Enki and June are the real couple sometimes.
The Questions That Remain
How much of your heart is left after it was broken by Ueda-sama? I have nothing left. Do you?
Are you going to start whispering “I’m June Costa, and I’m the best artist in Palmares Tres” when you lift weights?
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.