Thursday, January 02, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Spooks

This past year, when I finished a book, I tended to put it on a pile on the end of my desk. Not always, but enough that now I have a lot of books piled up. And since I want to eventually clear off that side of the desk (for, um, more books), I have to either review it, shelve it, and/or give it away. For each book I mention the provenance - how it ended up in my hands.  Because even stories have stories. So here we go.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi, TOR books, 2018

Provenance: The Lovely Bride got me this book in hardback back in 2018, and it sat around for a few months until I got to it this year.  The author had gotten great reviews on The Quantum Thief (which I have not read), and the release of this book came in with that top-echelon push - reviews in the book section of the Seattle Times, mentions on NPR, the works.

Review: There's a lot going on in this book. The easiest way to describe the central conceit is to say that there is an afterlife, and it is British. Or rather the British Empire want to colonize it. When you die, and are properly prepared, you go to another plane made of semi-morphic, mutable material that responds to thought, akin some of the transitive planes in D&D or the the Mists in Guild Wars. The British set themselves up in the ruins of previous inhabitants of this zone and remodeled. In the afterlife, one is neither truly gone nor forgotten - they can communicate with the living, come visit through people willing to be possessed for the purpose, and provide insights, aura-reading, and rapid communications.

And it is all used for spycraft. It is 1938 and Germany is just ... gone, not just defeated in WWI but obliterated spiritually. The Great Powers are England and the Soviet Union, where Lenin never died but instead ascended into a godlike Presence that feeds off the spirits of his own dead. The Brits and Russians are playing their great game over the Spanish Civil War, with the English supporting Francos's Fascists. The British spies are split into rival agencies for the living and the dead. And the Brits have a mole leaking info to the Russians.

Rachel White is a low-level intelligence officer who suffers from the classism and sexism of the British system. She gets a lead on the mole, who is on the afterlife side - The Summer Court of the undead British Intelligence, who are literally spooks. We also get the mole's side of the story, and his actions as the two square off against each other, dealing with their own side's challenges and their personal tragedies in the process. There is a lot of cat-and-mouse as the two together reveal that there is something even nastier going on.

The plot moves swiftly and the characters are well-grounded. For all the things going on at once here, it hangs together. The world of Summerland is filled with familiar faces in different roles - Stalin's here. Lenin is a godlike present. Kim Philby and his comrades check in. The Prime Minister is a roman à clef version of H. G. Wells, which marries neatly the spiritualism and tech of his earlier eras.

There is a lot packed in on this relatively slender volume, and it has a lot of place I would want to back up and understand more about how things work and how we got to this point. Footnotes or annotations would be a plus, but undercut the entire point of the "blink and you'll miss it" writing style. It would be something that Stephen Moffat could turn into a decent series for the BBC. So pay attention, know some of your interwar history, and you will be rewarded.

More later,