It is clear from the start that Johnson knows what she is doing with this novel, which takes place in the futuristic Brazilian city of Palmares Tres. The language and cadence of the book feel very authentic. A look at Johnson's bio shows that she writes from a place of experience with Brazilian culture. For the first thirty or so pages, as Johnson is building her world, the Brazilian slang almost made the prose difficult to understand. But, as with any other book with successful worldbuilding, once I got the hang of it, the language was no longer an obstacle. In Palmares Tres, Johnson creates a vivid, fully-realized, and beautiful world that is unlike anything I have read before. Her descriptions of the pyramid-shaped city are fascinating (though I admit to having trouble figuring out exactly how the city was structured).
The most interesting aspect of Johnson's worldbuilding has to do with the matriarchal society she has created in which kings are elected only to be killed at the end of their term by their queen. Since one of the main characters is Enki, the newly-elected Summer King, the reader is faced with the ticking clock of his impending death. This gives his story the stakes it needs. The point-of-view character, artist and student June Costa, is an engaging narrator. Raised in the upper class of Palmares Tres, June at first only wants to be known. For her, celebrity would be seen as success. Her transformation throughout the book as she matures into someone who uses her art for political purposes is especially meaningful. She is changed by Enki, yes, but also by her own experiences in her society and her interactions with her mother, her mother's new wife, and the women in the government. This makes June an active heroine, not just someone impacted by the men she meets.
Another unique feature of this book is the sexual fluidity of many of the characters. June's mother marries a woman after her husband's death. Enki falls in love with Gil, June's best friend, instead of with June. None of these relationships are treated as out of the ordinary or scandalous. The love triangle (if you can even call it that) between Enki, Gil, and June is particularly refreshing. Even though June loves Enki, she is not overly jealous of his relationship with Gil, nor does she let it get in the way of Gil and her friendship. It is a nice change to read a novel that is marketed as YA without having to worry about which boy the female main character will choose. It is also worth noting that every single character in the book is a person of color, yet the book still manages to address issues of race in a way that make sense in the post-apocalyptic society that Johnson has created.
While it is published by Scholastic and labeled as YA, The Summer Prince definitely has crossover appeal. I highly recommend it, and I look forward to checking out Johnson's other work.