|Cover design by Sue Michniewicz|
Gollancz, 28 June 2018
Source: Advance copy from the publisher (thank you!)
'The windmill you are tilting at is very high and ancient and English: Privilege...'
Well. (or should I say, Wells...?)
This is a strange one. It's a mashup of classic espionage (1930s, British Empire vs Soviet Union, a molehunt and traitors among the gilded products of elite English education) with horror (through some higher dimensional maths, the afterlife has been discovered so Spooks can literally be... spooks), overtones of steampunk (Queen Victoria rules from beyond the grave in her Summer Court) there are spirit crowns and the "coppery weave of spirit armour" and a dash of paradoxical mathematics (how can one rely on a system that must, logically, contain contradictions?)
It must, I think, take a good dose of self-belief to make such a thing work, as this does, combined with the ability to spin a great story. This account of Rachel White's thankless service for a thankless Service - she's an outsider, as a mere woman, also suspect as a married woman, shouldn't she have given up her job? - is certainly a great story. (I think all the best spy books need an outsider, someone who's prepared to judge, make a stir, in the secret world).
And Rajaniemi is assured in the way he makes the fantasy stuff - the ghosts, Summerland itself, the crowns and mediums and so on - a key part of the story, not just something tacked on. This is an alternate world. There is "Oxford Court" Tube line. Ectotanks win wars. Lenin has become "The Presence" - a steely hive mind. There may still be a Civil War in Spain, but its stakes are different, higher than in our universe. The science is different too, with a forgotten dead-end of 19th century science raised to the status of truth*. One of the fun things about the book is how much reality Rajaniemi allows to bleed in, whether it's the Prime Minister, modelled on HG Wells (see if you can spot the references to his books), the (real and alleged) spies and traitors who surround Rachel or indeed the mathematics and logic.
That makes the story seem more of a game than it is, this is a genuinely compelling narrative, focussing as it does on the frustrated life of Rachel White, the obscure, flailing motivations of Peter Bloom and on the wider, corrosive effect of the Empire's control of the spirit world. Bluntly, there is no more death, those assured of a "Ticket" can find their way to Summerland, where a little society has been build up (from bricks made of dead souls...) there to live out their deaths for eternity, even able to contact the living by "etheric telephone". It's to Rajaniemi's credit that he makes this whole edifice seem not only plausible but inevitable - as are the downsides. With no more life and death, what matters anymore? Only the most desperate loss is real now, such as a pregnancy that ended early or a soul literally consumed by one of those aetheric tanks. And with death, at large.defeated, what grief, what guilt, might be loaded on those affected by those rare true deaths?
So - whether as a story of tradecraft, spooks (of both kinds), mysterious files and of treachery, as one of horror and meddling with things We Were Not Meant To Know or as a sad and moving human tale dwelling on the aftereffects of loss, this would be a great book. As a blend of all three, it's unputdownable. The writing is sharp ("The raindrops tasted like fear") with the whole concept allowing for the emotional core of the story to be made literal ("the soul-fragments he carried from the War spilled out and made cold spots in the bedroom...", "the best of what the British Empire had to offer, spun from aether and made solid by collective belief." ) and Rajaniemi isn't above sly references to the classics of spy fiction (so, to a character shivering in the yard: 'Why don't you come in from the cold and tell us all about it?' Altogether a triumph, and I'd strongly recommend it.
For more about the book see the publisher's website here.
*Aether atoms. The idea is that space is filled with an invisible fluid, the aether, which is the stuff that supports light waves (as the air supports sounds waves). The idea of aether fell out of favour, not so much disproved as shown by Einstein to be unnecessary. In this world things took a different turn, and an idea that was seriously considered before Einstein - that atoms can then be imagined as more or less complicated, endlessly spinning aether vortices - essentially knots - plays an important part in its physics.