Things in Print Thursday :: please read Alaya Dawn Johnson’s books.

25 Feb

By drift partner.

First, a confession. I had been asked to make a list of five badass black protagonists in YA literature, and I said yes, and then I actually attempted to make one and could only come up with four characters from books that I’d read (two of whom were written by white authors). I am horrified and embarrassed by this and am resolving to read more books with black protagonists henceforth.

That being said, I am going to talk about one black YA author I like. Alaya Dawn Johnson writes speculative fiction and has recently branched out into YA with two books, The Summer Prince and Love is the Drug. I was a really big fan of The Summer Prince, less so of the latter, but I would recommend both as being worth a read.

Summer Prince is set in futuristic Brazil, in a city called Palmares Tres. The world has become largely uninhabitable, with a few scattered city-states in the midst of vast stretches of wilderness. Palmares Tres is a matriarchy in which young men called Summer Kings are ceremonially selected to rule for a year and then ritually sacrificed after naming the city’s new queen. (I admit to not fully remembering the exact reasoning behind this, but a lot of the worldbuilding in this book is quite dense and some of it may have been lost on me.) Our protagonist, June Costa, is an Artiste who wants to make politically charged Art and challenge the class system in place. She and her best friend Gil go to see the coronation of the new Summer King, a teenage boy named Enki who they both find instantly intriguing. Enki becomes instantly popular in the city, and he and June work together to make revolutionary statements about their city’s strict government. But, of course, Enki’s impending death hangs over their every action.

This book is really dense. Like, really dense. Johnson went a bit wild with the mythology and worldbuilding, which I find impressive and gorgeous, but I see other readers disagree and felt it’s a bit scattershot, which might be true. What I like about the book is that it captures the intensity of being a teenager who has strong ideas and aspirations while also moving a narrative forward. June is…well, as I said, an Artiste – she believes in the power of Art and will go to great lengths for her Art. I got swept up in this passion and found her to be an engaging and interesting, if not always entirely likeable, character. I also like that this book has multiple bisexual characters without shaming them or making their sexuality into a joke. The cover summary mentions Gil falling in love with Enki, and if I remember correctly they kiss and possibly sleep together, but so do June and Enki. Both of these relationships are treated as legitimate. Another huge selling point for me is that, because it’s set in Brazil, the entire cast is composed of people of color. I vaguely remember June’s pale skin being sort of a highlighted thing as something that made her stand out, and not in a good way, since most citizens are darker-skinned. Don’t quote me on that, though. Also the cover. The cover is beautiful and June is shown with natural hair, which is shockingly rare on a YA book cover. Anyway, like I said, it has very dense worldbuilding and it’s easy to miss some of the details on your first read, but I adore it.

Love is the Drug is a little different, being set in modern-day or very close to modern-day and centering around a deadly viral outbreak in the US and conspiracy theories therein. Emily Bird, a prep school student, has a chance meeting with a Homeland Security agent at a party which leads to her waking up in a hospital eight days later, with no memory of what happened. Agent David suspects her of having inside knowledge about the virus, particularly because her parents are scientists working on some kind of top secret project. Bird, unsure of where to turn, finds that the only person she can trust anymore is Coffee, the school’s resident drug dealer and conspiracy theorist. Coffee is suspicious too, but he’s on Bird’s side, and determined to help her unravel what really happened at that party and why she can’t remember it.

I don’t remember this book as well as I remember Summer Prince, and I think it’s because Johnson’s writing is, again, lovely but very dense and she seems to have a tendency toward slow-moving, complicated plots. What I took from the book wasn’t so much the answers to the mystery – I honestly couldn’t tell you without looking it up. What I did enjoy about this book was how Bird’s character developed. She’s always kind of gone along with what her parents wanted, as she wants to live up to their expectations and she’s very smart, but her own ambitions are far simpler. She hasn’t needed to ask questions or do critical thinking about the things she takes for granted, such as her parents’ mysterious work. The events in the novel force her to begin questioning everything, and thinking about what’s really important to her. Some people really love the plot in this book, and some people hate it. I’m somewhere in between, and I almost feel like I missed something because I didn’t have strong feelings about it either way. But I do think it’s worth a read, because Johnson has gorgeous prose and really does do character stuff well.

I originally read The Summer Prince on a recommendation from a professor, and even with my lukewarm feelings about Love is the Drug, I’m definitely a fan of Johnson’s writing. Even if some of it goes over my head, it’s the sort of prose that I feel like I could soak in for hours. I eagerly anticipate her next book.

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