From 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.