Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

I must have downloaded this a while ago, when it was on a 99p deal, and like a lot of such downloads it sat on my Kindle waiting for me to notice it. After my recent disappointment with a book I paid full price for (😶) I started reading with low expectations.

But of course, it was right up my street. Given that my favourite book of all is Tim Powers’ Declare, an urban fantasy set in the world of espionage from the 1940s to the 1980s, I should not have been surprised.

This also reminded me a little of another book I love, The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod. In MacLeod’s steampunk universe, a Victorian industrial revolution is driven by the discovery of a magical substance, aether, which is used to power everything, with the correlative being that everything falls apart without a steady supply of this element. (In fact, you could argue that this book is a mashup of MacLeod’s The Summer Isles and The Light Ages.)

Finnish writer Hannua Rajaniemi imagines a world in which, instead of radio, Marconi and others discover a means of contacting the dead. The resulting discovery of Summerland and an apparently happy afterlife means that people generally stop worrying about dying. It also means that, when nations come into conflict in this world, they are also in conflict in Summerland, and so the spy networks extend from the living to the dead.

With cameo appearances from Philby, Blunt, and Burgess, this was bound to appeal to me. The world-building is excellent, with the mechanics of contacting the dead well imagined, and with the First World War having been fought with very different weapons of terror. Set during the 1930s, with a civil war in Spain, the British SIS are wrestling with the idea that they backed the wrong side, and are considering support instead for a different faction against a Soviet Union controlled by a god-like being called The Presence.

The technologies that have arisen around Summerland are fascinating, ranging from telephone-like instruments to contraptions that keep visiting souls in borrowed bodies. And of course, a Faraday cage can be used as a cage.

If it doesn’t quite reach Le Carré levels of hall-of-mirrors complexity, Summerland still nods towards that idea that you can never quite trust who you’re talking to. And given the entertainment along the way, I can forgive its too many aha! moments at the end. 

There are deeper mysteries here, too, to do with what Summerland was like when it was discovered, and the identity of the British Prime Minister is a neat surprise.

Is this as good as Declare? Of course not, but it’s a fitting entry to the smallish field of urban fantasy espionage.