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Carnival King: The Last Latin Monarch. By Brent Alan James. ISBN: 978-0-915745-78-4. Floricanto Press.  $22.95

 In April of 1993, Brazilian voters were given a choice between continuing with a president, adopting a prime minister and parliament, or bringing back its long dormant monarchy. Carnival King is the story of what might have happened had they opted for the latter.  Outlawing the G-string bikini on Rio de Janeiro’s beaches! Auctioning the country’s name to the highest bidder! A police escort for thousands of shantytown dwellers as they descend upon downtown Rio to call for freedom! These are just a few changes one can expect when a nation bending under the strain of democracy decides to give monarchy another try.

As Brazil prepares to receive its new king ‑ the fourth in its history, but the first in one hundred years ‑ it seems lawmakers have accounted for every eventuality, except for one tiny detail: identifying the legitimate Brazilian heir to the throne, when the Supreme Court suddenly disqualifies the Portuguese descendant.

Needless to say, after one hundred years of Republicanism, Brazilian royalty isn't what it used to be. So it is not surprising that when the young man entrusted with the king's care, Marcos Antonio, meets his charge, he is less than awed. Brazil's home-grown monarch is an unkempt, thirty‑something supermarket employee with a penchant for deep‑fried pork, amateur climatology, and karaoke. His name: Reginaldo Santos ‑ but you can call him "Reggie." It is Marcos' job to shepherd Reggie from the Brazilian countryside to the former, now present, imperial capital of Rio de Janeiro, and shape this rather unhewn figure into a model of regal proportion.

Behind every great man there's another man dressed as a woman, and Reginaldo Santos is no exception. Bored with the monotony of his royal treatment, Reggie hits the town and meets a fellow monarch of sorts: the dazzling Marcela Seville, a drag queen who spends her nights on stage entertaining the endless stream of foreigners that flood Rio’s Copacabana strip. Marcela suggests to the naïve king that there's much more to the city than what he views from his palace window, and challenges him to see another reality behind the neon and sunscreen.

When Reggie isn't busy debating with Marcela the pros and cons of tropical climates, he can be found at Rio's National Library reading up on his royal ancestry. From these readings, brought to life through a series of vignettes that intertwine with Reggie's story, we learn more about his predecessor, Dom Pedro II, another reluctant monarch, who, at the tender age of fifteen, inherited the kingdom of Brazil. These flashbacks to the nineteenth century tell the story of young Pedro's growth as a leader, achieved through his courageous support for abolition, a position he takes against his advisor’s counsel and in direct conflict with his own dynastic interests. For young Pedro the political battle grows quite personal, as he witnesses first-hand the injustices of slavery when his fate becomes unavoidably entwined with that of a slave woman, Clara, and her son, Jacob. 

 Meanwhile, one hundred years after the abolition of slavery, Reginaldo Santos must come to grips with lingering inequalities in modern Brazil, and help the citizenry take that next step from emancipation to full participation in the democratic process. The societal challenges Reginaldo and Pedro face may differ, but the struggle is ultimately the same: to rekindle their subjects’ desire for freedom, even when it may signal the end of their rule. And to find, along the way, one's true self beneath the robes of a king. 

 This comedy about Brazilian politics and history rests on the premise that the 1993 plebiscite on what form of government voters preferred—parliamentary, presidential, or monarchical—actually favored the latter. While the premise is imaginary (voters actually favored presidentalism), James has captured the cynical mood of Brazilian politics amazingly well and his characters – a cast that includes reluctant monarchs, corrupt politicians, over-zealous cops, street vendors, and denizens of Rio de Janeiro’s night life – jump off the page as true life figures, recognizable to anyone who has spent time in Brazil. James has a delightful narrative style and his characters speak in crisp, modern dialogue. This is a thoroughly enjoyable story by an up-and-coming first author. Buy it now!  

Michael Conniff, Professor of Brazilian history, San José State University. Author of Modern Brazil: elites and masses in historical perspective and Africans in the Americas: a history of the Black Diaspora.

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