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I'm extremely confused by what's going on with this book. There's some interesting (if incomplete) worldbuilding, but the plot manages to be mostly unsurprising and kind of dull. The political reality also makes no sense - either in the sense of domestic or global politics. It reads like there were some great ideas here that just didn't cohere into a book.

For a book with such a big scope, Summerland just feels too small. It's like there are only fifteen real people in the world. This is the kind of book where a character can walk into a famous members' club and immediately stumble across the one person they desperately needed to see. Everything seems to take place in an extremely narrow slice of England - mostly London, with a few places in the home counties thrown in. Even the portions of Summerland that we see are functionally the same as Whitehall. We see about five seconds of action on the front in the Iberian Peninsula, and that's it. 

Oh, and Rachel, the main character, grew up in India. She's called Rachel White and she's very pale (she refers to her pale complexion as her "best feature" at one point and this thought is not like, examined in any way....) and her mother has an extremely English-Upper Class name so I'm assuming she is a posh British child who was brought up in India as the daughter of a colonial officer of some kind. India is mentioned a handful of times, mostly as somewhere with better weather than England, or through Rachel's childhood nanny, who talked to her of spiritual things. That's about it, for India, though. In this book, it's a faraway warm place and it smells of spices.

I'm not saying this book is uncritical about the British Empire. But its criticisms look inwards. They focus on the crumbling nature of the white male patriarchy that runs the intelligence agencies, and not that much else. It's a book trying to be about big, expansive, almost global matters. But all it cares about is England.

Even Russia is just a faraway place where Lenin once lived, and which occasionally snares British agents and turns them with the promise of all-knowing typewriters and the promise of your spirit one day becoming part of God.

All of this means that I never felt that the war in Spain was real (and not just some theoretical bargaining chip that would bend to the exact will of whichever faction won control of it). In this world, 1938 Germany conveniently has nothing going on. Somehow nor do any of southern Europe or Asia or like, the USA or anywhere else in the world. For the story to make sense, the UK and the Soviet Union are the only world powers that matter. It doesn’t work. I am unconvinced. When the final act of the book suddenly tries to make the stakes into the survival of the afterlife it’s just not convincing. I can believe in a fictional world where Victorian spiritualism is real. But I can’t believe in a fictional 1938 with such a simple, basic geopolitical reality.

I found H.P. West very interesting but don't know enough about H.G. Wells to get as much out of his inclusion as some readers will. I think it's plain that Rajaniemi enjoyed writing him because he's written with a lot of kindness and empathy that shine through small details that are used to build a picture of him and his life - and we don't necessarily always see those for all of the other characters, although for the most part I thought that Rachel and Peter were both handled well.

But... in a book that is supposed to be so occupied with the threat of global war (because the threat of another world war is constantly mentioned, even though so much of the world is absent)... many of the most engaging scenes involved West crouched over his Small Wars (a type of war-game played with small figurines). Or they involved Rachel and her pet birds. Or... actually my favourite scene might involve a clandestine meeting in a strange wax museum.

Rajaniemi's prose is mostly pretty good, and at times I really enjoyed reading this. It's just a shame I also spent a lot of the time frustrated. Rajaniemi can write! He can write thrilling action scenes and affecting small moments and he can create characters I care about. But tying those together with an engaging world and a coherent plot that works on multiple different scales/scopes has eluded him here.

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charlotte

December 2018

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