Hannu Rajaniemi (The Causal Angel) rewrites 20th-century history in a wildly inventive sci-fi/fantasy hybrid filled with action and espionage.
Rajaniemi's 1938 looks familiar at first glance. Great Britain's Secret Intelligence Service tries to get the drop on the Soviet Union's NKVD as Europe lurches toward war. However, in this timeline, the British Empire has discovered and colonized the afterlife with a sprawling city called Summerland. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union is governed by a man-made god called the Presence, and aetheric energy--souls--powers the weapons of war.
Glass ceilings remain the same in this alternate timeline. Rachel White of SIS's Counter-Subversion Unit has spent 20 years fighting tooth and claw for her career, watching as those who "went to Eton... and are able to pee standing up" get promoted over her. When a Russian defector trusts her with the name Peter Bloom, a dead British agent turned Soviet mole, Rachel's superior blows off the information as a ploy to make the SIS look foolish. He also transfers her to the Finance Section, concerned that her natural limitations have begun to show.
Certain that her source told the truth, Rachel sees no option other than to go rogue and pursue the mole on her own. Meanwhile, Peter Bloom himself cultivates sources among the Spanish Republic's forces, gathering intelligence on an ambitious new player who goes by the name Stalin. Rachel and Peter's game of cat and mouse tests them both, but pales in comparison to the devastating truth about the afterlife that awaits their discovery.
With boundless imagination, Rajaniemi invents a mortal realm with a steampunk flair, if steam were ghostly energy, and an afterlife in which every brick of a city is built from souls. Despite the elaborate worldbuilding, he grounds his concepts in day-to-day life. Ghosts can commute back to the land of the living by possessing professional mediums, so careers need not end in death. Relationships continue as well; Rachel's mother is deceased but still insists on frequent ectophone calls.
For all its bounty, aetheric technology has caused its share of problems, too. Rachel's husband, once a captain in the Royal Aetheric Force, suffers postwar trauma from the soul fragments embedded in his being, causing him sleepless nights and making intimacy difficult. Amid the turmoil, Rachel and Peter struggle with timeless questions of fidelity, ethics and loyalty. Sci-fi and fantasy readers longing to immerse themselves in a fascinating new world will love exploring Summerland, and its capable, determined female lead steals the show. This standalone begs for a sequel continuing Rachel's adventures and deepening the lore of Rajaniemi's afterlife. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Shelf Talker: In an alternate timeline where Great Britain discovered and colonized the afterlife, a British SIS agent must prove one of her deceased comrades is working for the Soviet Union.