Thursday, July 05, 2018

Review: "Summerland" by Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Summerland” ($25.99, Tor) proved an unusual read for me in more ways than one.

In 1930s Europe, no one fears death anymore. At least not if they have a Ticket to Summerland. Not only do the living know about the afterlife in Rajaniemi’s alternate history, but they can communicate with people there, and the dead can visit the world of the living whenever they want through mediums and other means.

It’s no surprise, then, that the European powers of the time would wrangle over control of the world of the dead, just as they do the world of the living.

Rachel White is a good, but dissatisfied SIS agent with the British Empire. As a woman in the 1930s, she doesn’t get the respect of her fellow agents or superiors, no matter how good her work. Then she learns of a Soviet mole in Summerland. Instead of being put on the case, she’s removed from her position and placed in an accounting position.

But with the possible fate of the afterlife on the line, Rachel isn’t going to give up the chase.

This was my introduction to Rajaniemi, so I didn’t know quite what to expect going in, but the premise of the book was unusual enough to pique my interest. I was not disappointed.

The truly strange thing about this book for me, though, is that I tend to be a character reader. The story has to be good, but if I don’t connect with at least one of the characters, I’m not fully engaged. A good character will even occasionally pull me through a not-so-good story. The truth is, I never really found my common ground with Rachel. She is, purposefully, I believe, a distant personality. I was never really invested in her on a personal level, yet the pages kept turning. Though I’m sure there have been one or two here and there, I can’t name another book where that’s happened off the top of my head.

So what was it that still made me enjoy “Summerland?” A number of things. First, there’s Rajaniemi’s writing style. Again, I always put character and story far above literary flair, but there’s just something gorgeous about his prose. It’s sophisticated and lyrical without being pretentious. I never get the feeling that Rajaniemi is talking down to me as a reader the way I do with some authors who have literary aspirations. Instead his words pulled me along and kept me engaged.

Then, there’s the world itself. How could you not be drawn to a place where death is, well, dead? You can pick up the ectophone and speak to a deceased parent if you need advice. You can say the words that you never got to say to someone who has passed away. There’s always time.

Of course, there are also downsides. One not-so-cool aspect is that there’s no paradise waiting on the other side for the folks in Summerland. Most of them still have 9-to-5 jobs. And if you believe you have eternity, are you living your life to the fullest and making the most of each day? They’ve also weaponized the afterlife with ectotanks that turn into Lovecraftian horrors that can mow through enemies. Now that I think about it, that last one is pretty awesome from a reader perspective, just not for the people in the book.

Part fantasy, part weird science fiction, part historical spy novel, there’s a lot to like in “Summerland” for a lot of different audiences. If secret agent adventure in the afterlife sounds intriguing to you, give it a try.

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