The British Empire colonised the afterlife.
SUMMERLAND is one of the great entertainments of the year so far. Another alternate-history, like UNHOLY LAND. And as good.
This 1938 is a time following an actual expedition into the afterlife by a British colonel, aided by Marconi and a thinly disguised HG Wells (named Herbert Blanco West, the latter two names belonging to his illegitimate children, which I thought was a fine touch) using the additional scientific theories of Charles Howard Hinton, a mathematician interested in the fourth dimension (he shows up briefly in FROM HELL).
Rachel White works for the Secret Intelligence Service. The service’s higher echelon is split into two parts. The Winter Court, here in the world of the living. And the Summer Court, populated by dead spymasters and spies — named for Summerland, an old British term for the afterlife. Thanks to British ecto-science, the two sides can interface.
One bleak winter afternoon when he was ten years old, Peter returned from school and found his mother sitting in the drawing room. The crystal set he thought was safely hidden amongst his toys under his bed lay in her lap. It was the size of a cigarette box, with a frayed cardboard casing, a Bakelite tuning dial and a tinny speaker that you had to hold up against your ear. Peter had bought it from Neville, an older boy at school. ‘Nanny Schmidt found this while cleaning,’ she said, tapping the set. ‘Tell me, Pete – what do the dead say when you talk to them?’ ‘You … you can’t talk to them with the basic kit, you can only listen,’ Peter said. ‘There is a lot of static. Mostly you only get the recent dead. They don’t make much sense.’ ‘I see.’ ‘I just wanted to understand how it worked.’ ‘And do you?’ ‘Of course I do, Mother, it’s all in Powell’s Aetheric Mechanics for Boys.
And let’s be clear here – the afterlife is British. Only British subjects of a certain status can obtain a Ticket. Because when we did we go to the afterlife – but we fade away after a day. We dissipate. The Ticket lets us stay there, in the city we built on the other side.
Rachel White is dealing with a Russian defector who seems to be trying to get himself killed. Without a Ticket. And that’s where it starts. Because he knows something he hasn’t told anyone else. Something that could destroy the British security service. And he tells Rachel.
It’s a spy story, yes. In a thoroughly worked out alternate history where accessing ghost technologies changed everything, large and small. Le Carre in the underworld, perhaps. It’s also an absolute blast from beginning to end. One of those “it’s 3am I really need to put this book down, maybe at the end of this chapter, oops no” books.
I’m not doing it justice. I really liked it.
Full disclosure: I once wrote a graphic novella called AETHERIC MECHANICS.