Mr. Rajaniemi has been on my watch list for a while now. Although I missed reading his Jean le Flambeur series (EBR Archive), I did read a collection of his short stories (EBR Review) back in 2015 and LOVED it. Then I didn’t hear from him for a long time. Not even a phone call, you know? 😉 But as soon as I saw this book in our pile, I was all over it. Didn’t want to pass up a read like I expected this one to be.
SUMMERLAND (Amazon), in a nutshell (or maybe a very small bomb shelter…) is laid out much like a good old-fashioned spy novel, only with a flair approaching that of China Mieville for its level of inventiveness and “out there” ideas. The setting is something much akin to the Spanish Civil War, with the British and the Soviets each enhancing the war in support of their regime of preference. Rachel White is an SIS operator for the British intelligence and she’s recently learned the identity of a Soviet mole, a Mr. Peter Bloom, but no one will believe her because of how close this individual is to the Prime Minister himself. The interesting part is that Peter Bloom is dead.
Ha! You see, the world of Summerland is a world of the dead that surrounds our own world and was found semi-recently (to the timing of the story) by British scientist-spiritualists, and has become an integral part of the living world in every way. Much in the same way that the living world exists in a horizontally-directioned space for the common layman, the region of Summerland exits by degrees in the vertical direction. At the highest point lies the living world, in which the souls of those that inhabit Summerland can interact through connection to spiritual mediums. At the lowest point, lies a realm of darkness and void and dissolution into nothingness for those that attempt to plumb its depths. The bulk of Summerland and its inhabitants lies between these two extremes, has been built up in manner to the living world using the source material of the souls of those long dead, and is currently populated by those that the British government has determined are worthy to inhabit it.
The development and structured revelation of the world as it is was quite easily the strongest aspect of the novel for me. Never one for info-dumping, Rajaniemi feeds us the details of the world once piece at a time and inserts it into the story with characteristic flair. He gives extrapolation and facet where other authors might be tempted to gloss over such aspects, and it is in these details that the connected worlds of ours and Summerland becomes fully-realized. Most of the direct connection between the spirit world of Summerland and the living world is accomplished through the use of rudimentary electronics: crystal radios, portable “ectophones”, and the lines of the electrical power grid. And yet there is an intimate connection between the living and dead as well, with the one inhabiting the other, and a veritable market supporting it.
And of course, not to be outdone, the Soviets have their own control of the souls of the dead as well. Although their application for this feedstock isn’t quite so…. individually generous, let’s say.
The two characters laid out by the story both, in the end, were pretty sympathetic for me. Rajaniemi paints them quite well in their respective rolls. I never once had to stop and wonder if this character might actually make such decisions, and in this way I felt he did an excellent job. The beginning starts quickly, introducing these two characters and world surrounding each of them on the run, as it were. My favorite portions of the story were the beginning and the ending. The middle slowed a little and lost some tension as each of the two characters were developed. Time spent in such endeavors are quite often an important part of the process for me. In this case, there might have been some little too much. Or perhaps, something else was missing from the middle of the novel to keep it up and moving while these characters were further fleshed out. Regardless, I still very much enjoyed the entire book.
The ending came with slap-bang crash — thought it was awesome — but it could have been built up to a little more, which would have made the book feel that much more solid. Things are left kind of open at the end. So, I’m expecting that there will be follow-up books, but I haven’t been able to find anything to suggest such as of yet. Guess we’ll see.
At times technically detailed and mind-bendingly awesome, SUMMERLAND is a spy-war novel with fully-fleshed characters and enough engagement to have you spending plenty of quality time turning its pages. Hannu Rajaniemi is back again, writing more science fiction and doing a great job of it. This is not a book to pass up. Check it out.
- Recommended Age: 15+
- Language: Pretty mild. Maybe a few strong words.
- Violence: A decent amount, but not graphic
- Sex: A quick scene, and several general references