Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles is as fine a novel as I've read for a long time. But I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. In order to enjoy it, the reader needs, I think, a certain background; what you might even call a set of qualifications. But first, some background on the book.
The author has his own web site, fortunately, and it's an unusually informative one. From his biography, for instance, you will learn that Ian R. MacLeod (despite his Scottish name) is an Englishman; he married a solicitor, and was thus able to become a full-time house-husband and writer. You will also learn -- a cautionary tale -- that prior to that break with work, the strain of trying to be both a writer and a civil servant brought him to the edge of a breakdown.
MacLeod writes chiefly in the science-fiction cum fantasy genre, and since 1990 he has won a number of of awards: these occupy a whole page on his web site, but include Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.
The Summer Isles is a piece of alternative history. Which is the correct term for it, and one that MacLeod uses himself (at least part of the time), though the publisher speaks of 'alternate history'. For a discussion of this alternate/alternative terminology, see my post of 11 November 2004.
An alternative history is a novel or short story which supposes that, at a certain point in time past, the world took a slightly different path from that which we know from our history books. (For a discussion of the history of such 'counterfactuals', 'uchronias' or 'what-ifs', see SF If You Like This.)
In The Summer Isles, the essential proposition is that England lost the First World War. It was England, therefore, rather than Germany, which had large parts of its Empire confiscated, suffered runaway inflation in the twenties, and which saw the rise to power, in the 1930s, of a fascist dictator by the name of John Arthur. (King Edward VIII, you may be relieved to hear, remains on the throne; together with Queen Wallis, which may not be quite such good news.)
The story covers the period from 1914 to 1940, and it is narrated in the first person by a man who once knew John Arthur. And it is this man who decides, now that he is dying, that the world will be a better place with John Arthur dead.
And now perhaps will be a good time to mention the background that a reader should ideally have if he is to find this book enjoyable.
First, I think it is essential that the reader should know a great deal about European history in the first half of the twentieth century. Within that context, he should be familiar with the course of English history.
Second, the reader needs to be at least sympathetic towards homosexual men. Our narrator is gay (queer would have been the term then), and the book is, at least in part, the story of a lifelong passion. There is no direct description of man-on-man activity (beyond a passing reference), but if all things homosexual offend you, then this is not for you.
The publisher (of whom more shortly) is American, and the Library of Congress cataloguing data, in the preliminary pages, classifies the book as: 1. Gay men - fiction; 2. Closeted gays - fiction; 3. National Socialism - fiction; 4. Great Britain - fiction. The emphasis is, I think, misplaced. Four to one might usefully be reversed.
Since the narrator is a teacher cum academic, an acquaintance with Oxford University will come in useful to the reader. In this alternative history, Oxford has fallen into the hands of second-rate pseudo-academics, of whom our hero is one, and knows it. Most intellectuals, it seems, have been dismissed or have disappeared.
The novel moves at a leisurely pace, and in patches might even be thought dull. But for the most part it is quite exceptionally well written without being self-consciously stylish or arty. Geoffrey Brook, the narrator, is 65 in 1940, and he has been told he has terminal lung cancer. This causes him to review his own history over the 1914-1940 period, and to make certain decisions about what to do with his life in the short time that remains. In the course of the book, we discover, unsurprisingly, given what we know of dictators, that John Arthur is not quite what he appears to be.
The Summer Isles is published by the Aio Publishing Company in the United States. This is a small company, in terms of its output, but it operates to high standards in design. The Summer Isles is far more attractive to look at and handle than any book that I've seen published in England for decades. I might have wished for slightly shorter lines and a slightly bigger font, and the proof-reading is not perfect; but overall, a design worthy of congratulation.
The book seems to have been published in a limited edition of 500 copies, each one signed by the author. Mine is numbered 492. According to MacLeod's web site, the Aio edition is for sale in the USA only, so I bought mine from Wrigley Cross Books, who are clearly a pair of quietly deranged booksellers who manage to make a living (one hopes) out of obscure enthusiasms.
The Summer Isles has been garlanded with honours. But you won't be surprised to hear that MacLeod had trouble getting it into print. Writers, he says, 'must learn to exist in lands of confusion.'