Review: Europe in Autumn (Fractured Europe #1), by Dave Hutchinson

May 25, 2016

Europe in AutumnFrom the moment his childhood television first blinked on to the sight of a cooking show, all Rudi ever wanted was to be a chef. Abusive bosses and sabotaging family members weren’t enough to stop him from working his way up and achieving his place at the head of a Polish restaurant’s kitchen. It’s somewhat puzzling why a man who’s always been so certain of his life’s direction, and worked so hard to achieve it, would step into a world of danger and espionage, but perhaps the dogged pursuit of something more is a hard trait to let go of.

So in a Europe that is no longer a union, but an ever-shifting array of nation-states and polities, Rudi ends up becoming one of the Coureurs, a carefully apolitical association of messengers, smugglers, and traffickers (with a rather overwrought sense of tradecraft) who will run almost anything or anyone across the increasingly complex borders in the spirit of keeping the failed Schengen agreement alive. It’s hardly a danger-free life — but when the danger arrives, it comes from unexpected sources, and Rudi might be the only one without the faintest idea why he’s in so much hot water.

Europe in Autumn is divided into two parts, and part one reads like a fairly solid, dryly humorous spy novel, in which the only discernible science fiction element is the near future setting. And what a strange and compelling setting it is, on the one hand an exaggerated and yet disturbingly relevant look at a futurist post-EU Europe in which the petty nationalism of the Daily Mail-reading, UKIP-voting Brexit types and their half-baked fearmongering about immigrants have gained enough sway to Balkanise the continent into irrelevance, on the other hand strangely mired in a very eastern European post-Communist sensibility that feels straight out of the 90s. Frankly it might have made a brilliant stage for a series of fairly straight espionage stories a la John le Carré, especially since those aspects are the strongest part of the novel.

In this part we’re more intimately connected to Rudi as a protagonist, and mostly watching the setting’s mysteries begin to unravel themselves at the same pace as he is. Rudi is kind of an empty inside everyman, not unlikeable, sometimes annoyingly passive in that he keeps coming back to the Coureurs like a kicked dog without giving us any insight into why he’s drawn to this whole mess, aside from the money, which in the face of actual torture seems less than adequate a motivation considering his situation beforehand didn’t seem like rough living. He’s at his most human when we get to see him with his not-quite-estranged family and he shows a realistic side of love, anger, distance, and nostalgia.

Part two is a beast of a different nature, though. The narrative breaks down into a series of vignettes, some of which take quite a while to show how they loop back into Rudi’s story, and the fantastical premise underlying the novel finally appears. And it’s a really good premise, but horribly executed — instead of getting to explore the whole new side to the setting, the plot skips and stutters ahead to when Rudi’s already so familiar with it that he barely bothers to introduce us to it at all.

I wonder if this book suffered from the pressure to make first books shorter, as some of the other debuts I’ve read lately seemed to. I know a lot of readers have levelled backlash against door-stopping tomes that could’ve used a firmer hand with the editing, and certainly the SF/F market has plenty of novels about which that criticism is entirely fair, but the result seems to have led to publishers being wary of letting unknown (or relatively so) authors loose with a large debut novel, even in situations where it would really serve the story so much better. If this had been a 500-600 page book in which the second part had as much room to breathe as the first, I expect I would’ve rated it much higher. From a technical standpoint, it’s definitely a well-written book — Hutchinson’s prose is clean and precise, and I love the very English dry wit that’s sprinkled liberally through the book.

Despite the significant pacing issues I would cautiously recommend it on the basis of its fascinating and topical setting, with the hope that the rest of the series will develop upon it in a less haphazard fashion.

3 stars

Review: The Killing Jar, by Jennifer Bosworth

May 10, 2016

The Killing Jar17-year-old Kenna has been living with a secret for years, the secret of a life she took, the secret of the dark and blissful power with which she took it. She’s grown up keeping everyone at arm’s length for their safety and her own, taking refuge in her music rather than the people around her. Despite her burden, she’s finally started to carve out some happiness for herself when a face from the past returns to take it all away, and forces her to awaken the piece of herself she’d fought so hard to hide. She’s spirited away to the nearby commune at Eclipse, to learn the nature of her power and the means of its control, but her first days among the reclusive Kalyptra yield more questions than answers.

To be honest, I signed up to read this with one of my book clubs almost solely on the basis of the cover. That is one astonishingly effective and beautiful piece of cover art. Young adult supernatural thrillers aren’t really what I’d think of as my forte, but I ended up very glad that I was motivated to pick up The Killing Jar, which is pacy and engaging.

Kenna is a likeable protagonist with an authentic teenage voice, and the majority of the secondary characters are well fleshed out too. There is romance here, but family relationships are what take centre stage. Kenna has a twin sister who is terminally ill, and has been extremely frail throughout their lives, and the guilt of a healthy twin faced by a dying one is exacerbated by the nature of Kenna’s powers. While I would have liked to see that explored in greater depth on the page, it probably would have impacted the already ideal pacing, and as it stands it doesn’t get short shrift. Kenna’s relationship with her mother, Anya, doesn’t lack for complexity either; her mum is the only one who knows the terrible thing she did as a child, and Kenna’s first lesson in keeping the world at arm’s length comes from the distance between the two of them after that first killing. In a way it skirts close to the annoying trope of building a story around complications that wouldn’t exist if the people involved just had a simple conversation, but in this case I think it’s earned because of the totally different relationship that Anya has to Kenna’s power due to its origins and her own.

I mentioned romance, and this novel features a rare and surprising thing for the YA fiction I’ve experienced: A love triangle that isn’t annoying. The main reason why it works is because it’s not really about Kenna choosing between two guys, it’s primarily about her choosing between the two incompatible ways of life that they each represent. Given that one of the central points of the story is Kenna’s need to stop sitting on the fence and make a choice about where, and what, home is, it actually serves the narrative quite well. I do wish, though, that the resolution of the triangle had involved a more active choice on Kenna’s part, in keeping with that theme.

I also really liked the way that Kenna’s power is described. Bosworth captures the feel of being high on life, an almost synaesthetic experience to which I can relate. Her writing flows nicely, it’s descriptive without being overwrought, with evocative imagery used throughout, especially of the moths. Kenna’s experience of the Mother is genuinely chilling.

Overall, the story runs in an easily predictable direction, but that doesn’t detract from the experience. It’s a pleasure just to see the hows and whys of its unfolding.

4 stars

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