Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

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Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

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Category: Dystopian Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Megan Kenny
Reviewed by Megan Kenny
Summary: Summerland is a fast paced, innovative spy novel, perfect for those who enjoy a philosophical thriller. Filled with flawed and interesting characters, Summerland encourages us to consider the limits of life and the perils of an easy death.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: June 2018
Publisher: Gollancz
ISBN: 978-1473203280

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Imagine a world in which death was no longer something to fear but something to aspire to. After discovery of the afterlife, the British Empire has extended its reach into Summerland, the Big Smoke for the recently deceased. In 1938 the British Empire is caught up in a race against Soviet spies and dealing with a mole buried deep in the heart of Summerland. When Rachel White, an ambitious SIS agent, becomes suspicious about the potential rogue agent, she must decide how far she is willing to go and how much she is willing to risk to uncover the truth.

There are a lot of interesting themes in Summerland, particularly those of mortality and the meaning of life. If death no longer holds any power, how does one find meaning in the life they are living? These questions haunt the main characters throughout and often serve as motive for the espionage and treason they engage in. There is also a thread of sadness running through this book, which draws the reader in and makes the characters seem much more flawed and therefore realistic. It is also interesting to observe how Rajaniemi has woven real characters into the narrative, thus grounding Summerland in history whilst at the same time creating a world which is beyond our current imagining. One of the most important themes is that of gender, with Rachel struggling to find her place in a male dominated world and disappointed in the feebleness of the men tasked with keeping the country safe. This adds an interesting edge to Summerland and it was pleasing to see consideration for the frustrations of women who have fought to serve their country, often in the face of active opposition. Rachel is much more than a one dimensional foil for a male character's plot development and this elevates Summerland about the often simplistic portrayals of women in spy thrillers.

If I had to find fault with Summerland, I would say that the host of characters involved may be difficult for some to keep track off, particularly when code names are employed, however this is a minor detail and did not detract from my enjoyment of Rajaniemi's innovative work. I also felt that the story seemed to fizzle out before resolving the central tenet to the story, which I will not give away! No spoilers here, but I was disappointed not to see more detail given to this strand of the story.

Overall, I enjoyed Summerland. The story moves at a good pace and Rajaniemi has delivered the tone and style of a 1930's thriller with a modern voice. There is a wealth of detail here which conjures up an evocative world of espionage and political intrigue. Where Summerland departs from the spy thrillers of old is in Rajaniemi's skillful construction of an active afterlife, with the dead keeping tight hold on the living. He has carefully constructed a world which is believable and thus rather terrifying. This is not a run of the mill tale of rogue agents, secrets and danger but instead uses this narrative framework as a guide to explore the deeper secrets of the human heart and the power of our own mortality.

If you're a fan of the spy thriller, you could try Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith or The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry.

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