Make James Bond a married woman and more complex character, allow for a very real afterlife which connects in some ways to the living realm, add an extra double cross and you’ve got Summerland. The premise is super interesting: in the late 1930s there are 2 branches of British spies, one based in the world of the living and one based in the world of the dead, called Summerland. There is massive political intrigue and likely catastrophic conflict brewing between the followers of the Presence (some sort of god-like intelligence that exists in the afterlife but has followers among the living), Stalinists, Spain, and the UK. Rachel White works for the SIS (Service) and discovers that there is a double agent among her counterparts in the Summer Court (based Summerland). The problem is that her source is unreliable at best, no one believes her, and there are politics going on at all levels which get in her way. In the end, everyone finds out she was right, but the bad guys (at least some of them) are not as bad as they seemed at first, and the right side has become somewhat unclear, and the potentially horrific other-worldly things the real villains want to release is still kind of in the background.
All of this gets dark, darker than my usual taste, but the world itself helped me get through. The technologies involved in communicating with the dead are described in some detail, and there are some hints as to the history behind the discoveries. This is science fiction with very slight fantasy, horror, and philosophical edges. The fantasy comes from the presence and communication with ghosts, and the philosophy comes from the exploration (and some characters get quite direct and explicit) of the boundaries and meanings of life and death, what they mean, and why they matter. The horror aspect comes from the discovery of Cthulu-like beings which might be resurrected.
I had bought this for travel reading. I’m not sure that was the best choice. It’s slim enough for a good carry-on read, but at the same time this is the kind of story that really should have some time and thought spent with it. The philosophical and historical commentary have a lot of potential, and so do some of the characters. As any spy, Rachel has her secrets, and struggles between her professional and personal lives. Her relationship with her husband Joe really could use a novel of its own, but I rather appreciate that a lot is left unsaid. They have a complicated relationship, they both keep things from each other in effort to protect the other, they are both flawed or damaged by things in their lives, and they struggle sometimes to communicate. The only reason this story doesn’t end like a horror novel, and it really does have the capacity to go that way, is that Rachel and Joe seem to be heading towards a better place in their relationship in the closing scene. So maybe not so much James Bond on that level.