Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland (2018) is what you might get if you took the setting/premise of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead and gave it to John le Carré to turn into a novel, though I’d argue it’s lacking a bit in the character depth and emotional touch of those two authors.
Summerland is basically an espionage/counter-espionage novel set in late 1930s Britain, who is involved in a proxy-war with Russia (led by a sort of over-soul known as “The Presence”) via the Spanish Civil War, while Stalin, as a Russian dissident, is playing his own power games amidst the chaos. What truly sets the book apart from the run-of-the-mill spy novel is the fact that more than a few of the characters are spirits — denizens of Summerland, a city of the dead discovered some years earlier.
We enter the story through several POVs. One belongs to Rachel White, a long-time veteran of the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), whose gender has kept her back while less skilled agents have been promoted. Rachel is directly involved in the action that precipitates the novel’s plot, when a Russian defector she is interrogating kills himself on her watch, but not before revealing to her the existence and name of a mole in Summerland (Britain has both living and spirit spy organizations). When her report is dismissed as an attempt to paper over her screw up and she is demoted, Rachel goes rogue, working with a spirit spy to try and reveal the mole.
The other POV is the mole himself, Peter Bloom, who is currently working to turn assets in Spain for Britain (though being a mole, he’s actually working for Russia and The Presence). His is a much more varied point-of-view. In real time we see him at work in Spain, in communication with his Russian handlers, in meetings with high-up British agents and politicians, including the Prime Minister himself (who seems to be keeping a major secret), and eventually we watch as he attempts to turn Rachel (part of her plot to capture him). We also get to visit the city of the dead and learn something about how it works thanks to his “living” there (for instance, we learn of how it was designed by “aethertects” and why its citizens take mass transit when they can also “thought-travel” almost instantaneously). Finally, his back story is filled in via a series of intermittent flashbacks to his time at Cambridge.
Secondary but important characters in Summerland include Rachel’s husband Joe, a veteran of WWI (which Britain won due to ecto-technology) suffering from some dark trauma; an old friend/colleague/wouldn’t-mind-being-more of Rachel’s whom she’s not sure she can trust; the dead former SIS leader who is working with Rachel on catching Bloom; and H.B. West, the British Prime Minister who is clearly based on H.G. Wells.
The real-time plot core is, as noted, a pretty typical spy story (if one ignores the non-realistic trappings) filled with tangled relationships, questions of who can or cannot be trusted, betrayals and double betrayals, questions of the greater good, and the like. The whole Spanish Civil War aspect of it gets a bit muddy/tangled, at least I never felt fully comfortable with what was exactly going on there and why, but once the story leaves that behind and deals more directly with the spy/counter-spy, it all runs very clearly. There’s no “mystery” as is often the case in a mole story, since we learn very early it’s Bloom, so the tension arises from whether Rachel’s rogue operation will succeed or not, though Rajaniemi throws in a twist toward the end to heighten the threat.
If you like spy novels, that plot may be enough for you. I admit it didn’t compel me all that much, which meant it was up to the characters to do that. This was a mixed bag. I found Bloom’s story to be much more interesting. His real-time conflict over being a mole, his second thoughts about joining the hive mind of the Presence (his eventual “reward”), his personal connection with the Prime Minister, and his existence as a spirit (which allows him to see into the souls of people and feel emotions, though not read thoughts) all made him a richly layered character. The flashback scenes of his youth and how he was turned only deepened his story. I’m not sure I felt a lot for him, but I did find him interesting.
On the other hand, Rachel mostly left me both cold and uninterested. I could empathize with her frustration over the rampant sexism and “old boy” network, but that was about it. Her marriage problems felt a bit melodramatic and also, somewhat paradoxically, at a far remove (though that was part of their problem, I suppose).
Meanwhile, the genre elements were also somewhat mixed. At times I absolutely loved the revelations about Summerland and how the discovery of an afterlife affected things — the aforementioned commuting scene, the way Rachel’s dead mother is still nagging her for not calling more often (imagine an eternity of that), the use of Tickets to get into Summerland, the way the dead eventually “Fade” (some more quickly than others), and a few others. Sometimes there were just brilliantly sharp small moments or asides. But then it also didn’t feel fully realized. The impact of death, for instance, being not as permanent as everyone thought, gets some mention but wasn’t explored as much as it seemed it should have been.
I liked Summerland, but I didn’t love it, thanks to that feeling that the premise could have been more fully mined and because I never fully engaged with either character, especially Rachel. Those who don’t mind a less emotional response to their reading will probably enjoy it much more.