Friday, April 26, 2013

Sound Structure: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Ever since Twilight grabbed the attention of millions of readers by beginning with the ending, the action prologue has been a staple of young adult literature. It may be overused, but it's a favorite for a reason. When Stephanie Meyer opened with Bella facing certain death at the hands of an unnamed tormenter, she was making a promise to the reader: stick with me through the slow character introductions and world-building, and I'll give you adventure, romance, and death-defying danger.

In a larger sense, the action prologue, and all tweaks to the simple chronological story structure, are about enhancing the impact of plot and character moments. For example, a love story told from the moment a couple meets to the moment they break up might be sad. But if the writer starts in the middle of the relationship and only flashes back to the first meeting after she details about the breakup, the hope and happiness of those early moments acquire a tinge of tragedy because the reader knows what the characters themselves do not: this story ends badly.

The characters in Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince know that their story will end badly. Or at least, they should. June and her best friend Gil are in love with the new Summer King, but in their home city of Palmares Tres in future Brazil, the Summer King is always killed at the end of the year. Johnson uses an unusual narrative structure, mixing voice and time, to both solidify this event's inevitability and call it into question.

***WARNING: I deploy mild spoilers in order to discuss this book's structure in detail***

The book opens with the gripping line "When I was eight, my Papai took me to the park to watch a king die." This is the last Summer King, and June believes she is old enough to handle his death because she understands that he wanted to die. If he had not, he would not have volunteered himself for the position, which involves making a noble sacrifice for his city.

But we soon move forward in time to meet a teenage June who, along with her friend Gil, has fallen in love from afar with Enki, one of the current Summer King candidates, even though she knows that if he wins he is going to die. Because June allows herself to forget that Enki will certainly be dead at the end of the year, we the readers also wonder if maybe there is hope for him.

After the first section with present-day June, Johnson inserts a curious passage in italics that begins "Sometimes I imagine the end of the world." By the second paragraph, the narrator refers to himself as a boy, making it clear that this is no longer June's first-person narration. But who is it?

Johnson switches back to June for Enki's election and June and Gil's attendance at the celebration party, where Gil and Enki lock eyes across the room and kiss in front of party-goers and gossip feed cameras alike. And then it is back to the mysterious italics narrator, who begins this interlude with "You ask me why I want to die..." This is when we suspect that this voice belongs to none other than Enki, the Summer King.

Enki's narration pops up throughout the book, filling in some of his backstory, referring to things yet to come in the story, saying dreamy things about being able to speak with the city. Early on, he says "This is a record of my dying," establishing clearly that he will, in fact, die. But June and Gil become so invested in the attempt to stop his death that we are swept along with them, and Enki's certainty acts as a counterpoint, increasing the suspense and fueling our hope that everything will work out.

As June gets more involved with Enki and drawn further into the world of political intrigue in Palmeres Tres, Enki's voice, which seems to know far more than even the present incarnation of his character, teases of hidden knowledge and things to come. This clues us into the fact that there is far more going on than June, our first-person narrator, realizes. And when those things ultimately become clear, when the nature of italics-narrator Enki is finally revealed, it changes the meaning of the book. This was never a suspenseful story with an unclear outcome. We knew the ending to this story all along; it was just so good that we, like June and Gil, got caught up in hoping things would work out.

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