Review: Summerland

Summerland is a good old-fashioned spy novel with a massive speculative twist. The world has expanded to include the afterlife, a world where souls easily pass over to extend their lives exponentially. By combining the intrigue of a spy thriller with a spirit world blurring the boundary between science and magic, Rajaniemi has created a novel that details the lengths to which people will go to keep power in life and death.

SUMMERLAND

Hannu Rajaniemi
Tor, 2018

5 out of 5 Robots

QUICK SUMMARY

A defector gives a spy a startling lead that sends her down a path of discovery marred by the highest echelons of a dual power structure. A man works tirelessly in Summerland, trying to exert his influence on a world at the brink of a second World War. Cue murder, intrigue, and an afterlife both beautiful and starling in its depth and the danger lurking within.

As a quick note, I try not to include spoilers, but it’s hard to talk about this book without getting into some of the details. I haven’t revealed any major plot twists, but if you want the technology and some details of the afterlife to remain a complete surprise, heed the warning below.

Spoiler

WHY I LOVED IT

A VISION OF THE AFTERLIFE

The author’s vision is mesmerizing in its complexity and its speculative depth. Souls are given tickets to live in this city built from the embers of old souls, fueled by their belief that they are in this city. It’s all a construct held together by collective belief, and they’ve created beautiful things. They fly around and continue their same careers in death as in life. They can communicate with loved ones through psychic connections that seem as normal as walking down the street. Those unable to gain access to the city float about and disappear, their memories and connection to the world gone, leaving only a stone behind. There are so many depths to this new world that are skated past, and it’s rendered so spectacularly that you’ll wish you could visit.

THE TECHNOLOGY

The tech was a fun combination of advanced science mixed with a 1930’s rendering of what advanced technology would look like. The devices used to communicate with the afterlife are huge, and it’s hard to fully imagine what they might look like. I imagined a mix between a large wooden radio and a gramophone. There are large mechanical dolls that spirits are able to inhabit in order to talk to the living. There are zap guns, which was a fun addition, harkening back to old sci-fi. Most fascinating is the means by which spirits inhabit bodies. Mediums, as they’re called, don strange mechanical devices that encapsulate the spirit, giving them a few hours to live life as though they were still alive. It’s wild to imagine.

NEO-NOIR MEETS FANTASY

I loved the spy aspect of this mixed with fantasy. It felt like reading an older spy thriller in a fantasy world that doesn’t seem speculative after a few chapters. You start to just accept that the dead are among the living, that Summerland is a real place and it’s not strange to have these ghosts inhabiting living hosts as they attend parties and eat at restaurants. This was an old-fashioned neo-noir filled with top notch spy tactics, pitting the British against the Russians.

THE ALTERNATE HISTORY

There are so many new elements to history here, complete with an alternate means of the allies winning World War I using terrifying technology that makes the actual events of the war preferable. Russian politics of the time are vastly different, due to this new technology, and the British government is constantly at odds with its dead counterpart in Summerland. There’s so much going on here, and it’s definitely one of the most original alternate histories I’ve read.

THE LEAD CHARACTER

I loved her arc and her persistence at being the best spy possible. She’s constantly undermined and looked over by her male counterparts and unqualified superiors, yet she powers forward toward the truth, risking her life for the mission. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and uses her flaws to improve herself in her career and in her personal life. She’s a brilliantly executed inspiration.

A DISCUSSION ON WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE AND DIE

This was the deeply trying part of the book. In a world where the afterlife is known and we simply need a ticket to access a world without pain that is essentially a continuation of our living lives, why would anyone try their hardest to make the world a livable place? Dying barely matters, and it has confused and turned the morals of more than a few people in power. It takes the meaning of life off the table, taking us back to a very antiquated and fearful ideal that to live is to prepare for death, and that a waiting afterlife is all that matters. In the face of such a society-altering discovery, how would our deeply flawed and oftentimes miserable world react? The novel presents one option among many, and by the end, you’re left wondering how you would live your life if given this option.

CONCEPTS

Spies, Counterintelligence, Death, After Life, Technology, Souls, Neo-Noir, Spiritual Mediums, Meaning of Life, War, World War I, Alternate History

WHERE TO BUY

Barnes & Noble
Amazon

CITATION

Rajaniemi, Hannu. Summerland. Tor, 2018.

Interested in more books like Summerland? Check out our book reviews here.

Photo by Monica Silva on Unsplash

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