(2017) Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, 328pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20327-3
Hannu Rajaniemi’s previous series of novels starting with The Quantum Thief, were interesting, but arguably not an easy read. This latest novel, Summerland, is written in a much more accessible style, but you do still need to pay attention, as little is directly explained.
This novel is set in 1938 in an altered past. The premise is that at some point during the Great War they find that the recently dead have not gone far and can be contacted, in fact they manage to build a whole other land, the titular Summerland. Though the question remains “Where do souls go when they fade from the Summerland?” A question all nations and powers try to provide an answer for, even if it means they have to build God (yes physically, build God). This means the struggle between Fascists and Communists ideology stops being just a political struggle and becomes a very real choice of where you want your soul to go when you die.
The protagonists, Rachel White and Peter Bloom, are both likable, interesting characters, which leaves the reader a slight dilemma as to whom to support when you they have conflicting agendas even though they are both British agents, so in theory at least, on the same side. However, the civil service, and the country, is split in two: the winter court of the still living and the summer court of the recently dead from where Queen Victoria continues to rule Great Britain.
Rachel is in the winter court on the trail of a double agent, she knows who it is, but how do you prove duplicity and what is the consequence when the spy is already dead? Rajaniemi also tries to depict the gender issues of the period. How do you prove anything when you are a woman in the 1930s and nobody takes you seriously and even blames their own failings on you?
Peter, in the summer court, struggles with a dilemma; how can anything be real if contradictions can be shown to be true, how can we rely on the purity of maths if it fails in reality? Peter is plagued by self-doubt and seeks meaning to his life and afterlife.
It is difficult to define what genre or subgenre Summerland falls into, without using catch all terms such as slipstream. On one hand it happens in the past, so some theorists would argue that it is historical fantasy, the connection to the dead and mediums might suggest horror or supernatural, but all of the explained otherworld elements are given a scientific or rational cause suggesting science fiction, but with airships flying you would be forgiven for thinking steampunk, or perhaps dieselpunk? Ultimately, the plot is one of spies and espionage. If you hate any of the above, then this is not likely to be the novel for you. However, assuming that you are open-minded enough to get though all that then the story is worth the effort.
Summerland is a fast-paced, intriguing tale of spies, double agents, betrayal and finally, a battle for the definition and value of a soul; both on a personal, national and world scale.
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