Genre: Science Fiction, Alternate History
Publisher: Tor Books
Length: 480 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars
Publication Date: June 26th 2018
It is 1958. World War II never happened. In the 1930s, the armies of the afterlife – known as Summerland – conquered the world of the living. The ruthless, immortal Summer Lords and their ectoplasmic machines rule a dark Britain with an iron fist. A gifted young medium and a bastard daughter of Harry Houdini discover a map of the Other Side that could break their power. But how do you start a revolution against rulers you cannot escape even in death?
In 1938, the British Empire conquered Heaven and twenty years later, death is not final anymore. British citizens deemed worthy are offered a Ticket, a pass to an afterlife in Summerland, a metropolis made of souls.
However, afterlife has a cost and death is now an asset in the pre-war years. In this alternate history, World War II never happened and the Soviets are building their own Summerland. Their aim is to create God by making a machine compiling the souls of all the loyal and obedient Soviet citizens. Their God will be all knowing and will allow them to conquer Earth and all its heavens.
Rachel White is a SIS agent working for the Crown: she is slowly earning her Ticket that will allow her to join the rest of her family in Summerland. During one of her missions, she gets a lead on a mole residing in the Summer Court. However, being a woman in the SIS isn’t easy and Rachel doesn’t have the support of her higher-ups. It doesn’t help that the alleged traitor has a lot of high placed friends such as the Prime Minister but most of all, that he’s dead. How do incriminate a soul? Her only way to do so is to go rogue and find allies who are able to infiltrate the world of the dead.
Summerland is a very unique kind of spy fiction novel. In this world, since death is not final, the dead have a very big part to play in the political situation and people’s feelings toward death is very different from what we know. Indeed, for most of them, life is only the beginning. Murder and death are overrated since you can just continue doing everything you used to do “before” in Summerland. What’s really the point of living in this situation except to earn your Ticket?
However, since the system is based on merit, inequalities of daily life transcend death. Only the ones deemed worthy or rich enough can buy their way into the afterlife and, even with all the money or merit, the souls of the dead start disappearing after a while anyway. If you are poor, death is the end, if you’re rich, you can only put it off for so long.
This novel has a fascinating worldbuilding and its execution is done perfectly. At first, I was quite lost because Rajaniemi throws you into this world without a lot of explanations and you have to figure everything out on your own. Learning the vocabulary and finding out what is alternative history to what really happened to place the story in the right context is the most difficult part. However, even is it is a bit much at first, when you get how this world work is the moment you can truly appreciate Rajaniemi’s genius. The novel is really short for the sheer amount of imagination and worldbuilding it contains. At the end of the book, I felt like I almost knew this alternate world as well as my own!
It also helps that the plot is very engaging and that I really enjoyed reading from both perspective: the mole and the one trying to find him. I was rooting for both protagonists and they felt like real people. I related a lot to Rachel’s struggles as she is trying to do her work as well as she can while being refrained by her male entourage who just want her to quit because, after all, women shouldn’t ever be spies right? I could also sympathize with Bloom and why he was working against his own country.
I don’t read a lot of spy novels but I enjoy them quite a lot, especially when they have speculative elements (like Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence for example) and this one was the perfect example of that. The story was intriguing, the world fascinating and even if this novel is standalone, I want more stories set in this world!