Review: Europe at Midnight (Fractured Europe #2), by Dave Hutchinson

June 1, 2016

Europe at MidnightSeparate 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.

4 stars

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

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