Separate from the Community, but overlapping the geography of our world’s Europe in the same fashion, is a pocket universe called the Campus, which, true to its name, is made up of a giant university. Unlike the citizens of the Community, those of the Campus don’t know about their world’s nature, or about Europe and the Community at all. Over generations, families make the gradual rise from Student to loftier positions like Research Assistant or Doctor. When a coup replaces and imprisons the Old Board, Rupert — not his real name, but the only one we will know him by — makes a sudden jump to Professor of Intelligence, and among the many duties he struggles to complete with limited resources is to track down a missing group who might just have escaped the Campus… and to figure out how, before one harsh winter robs the already severely impoverished new regime of the last of its food.
Rupert’s narrative connects, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with that of Jim, a London detective whose investigation of a seemingly mundane bus stabbing leads him into the secret of Europe’s parallel worlds. After the pacing issues that Europe in Autumn suffered from, I thought that the last thing this book needed would be more hopping and jumping around in the timeline, but actually, Europe at Midnight’s non-linearity serves it very well. Where the first entry in the series bafflingly skipped over many of the moments that ought to have provided the greatest suspense, this second novel uses the gaps in its timeline to heighten them, often introducing the resolution of startling and curious events in one character’s storyline only to backtrack and explore them in the other’s.
Of the two lead characters, Rupert is by far the more developed and interesting, although the deck is stacked in his favour by both his exotic origins and the fact that his perspective is delivered in first person, whereas we experience Jim’s through the remove of third person. He’s also a bit more engaging to read about than Rudi, because of the more accomplished presentation of his tradecraft; the years pass by fast, as they did in Europe in Autumn, but here the ones we miss are the ones in which the great amount of mundane groundwork required by any plausible spy story is laid, rather than the ones dealing with a number of Situations that sounded like interesting plots and character development in their own right.
Europe at Midnight also improves upon something that didn’t bother me too much about the first book, but probably would’ve become a serious irritant if the series had continued in the same vein: The lack of women. Although none of them are POV characters, this story is populated by a number of female characters who stand out quite impressively as individuals given the limited page count.
One of my frustrations with Europe in Autumn was that when Rudi was introduced to the Community, we weren’t, another fascinating and defining moment that was skipped over. I wanted to explore the Community on the page and experience it as a culture, not just as a plot device. I was therefore thrilled that this book juggles the settings of the Campus, the Community, and the series’ futuristic, Balkanised version of our Europe such that they each feel like living, breathing places with their own distinct aesthetic. Both the Campus and the Community are versions of an England that never was, but where the Campus feels like a post-war England still finding its footing after the harsh rationing and the loss of substantial parts of a generation — if, you know, such an England had actually been a Prisoner-style experiment with complementary higher education — the Community is a Tory’s wet dream, a genteel and stultifying Merrie England in which the wheel of social advancement has stopped turning, providing an idyllic existence for those fortunate enough to be on the top at the time, and a static nightmare for those on whose shoulders they stand.
For the most part, the tale runs tandem to Rudi’s from the first book, not really touching it until the end. It does finally connect, though, and it finishes in a place that looks promising for both sides. This really was a marked improvement over Europe in Autumn, and if Hutchinson can deliver a third book that’s as clever and polished, I can entirely forgive the first book’s flaws for setting up such a promising work of geopolitical fiction.