2010s, 2015, Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee, British, BSFA Award nominee, Dave Hutchinson, espionage, John W. Campbell Award nominee, near-future, Rebellion/Solaris, science fiction, spy fiction, The Fractured Europe Sequence, thriller
In the wake of Europe in Autumn, which earned a place on the shortlists for the 2014 BSFA and Clarke awards, Dave Hutchinson is becoming downright prolific. Last I saw on Twitter, there was talk of a fourth book in the series, with the third already delivered—pretty impressive. Having just reviewed Europe in Autumn, I’m hoping I can segue my way into Europe at Midnight with the overall style (le Carré meets Kafka) and setting (balkanized, near-future Europe) fresh in your memory. And I’ll also hope that, when discussing books in a series, you’re prepared for some spoilers—namely the first book’s big SFnal reveal, a key component to Midnight’s layered plot.
Europe at Midnight isn’t so much a direct sequel to Europe in Autumn as it is a companion piece. Those hoping for the continued adventures of Rudi, coureur-chef may be disappointed to find themselves following two plotlines on another branch of the railway, but I think that was the right choice. I’ll also note that while the book can be read semi-independent of Europe in Autumn, the first book did such a wonderful job of drawing the reader in while introducing its setting, while Europe at Midnight all but throws the reader into the plot on page one. I vastly prefer that to a tedious “let’s recap the last book” chapter, or worse, ongoing exposition dumps, but I can see how a first-time reader could be overwhelmed without knowledge from the first book to set expectations.
The novel’s first storyline follows a man with the nom-de-plume Rupert of Hentzau. Rupe’s an intelligence officer for the mysterious “Campus,” a warped vision of a university’s hierarchical structure turned into its own sovereign state, existing in war-torn disarray. Rupert investigates dead bodies dredged up from the river, though indications are that others managed to escape the Campus. That’s a baffling thought, as here there is nothing but the Campus. It doesn’t take much to assume the Campus isn’t exactly in the fragmented Europe we know but exists in a pocket universe; Rupert does make the trip to the continent as he’s sucked into his own Ruritanian intrigues, coaxed off the Campus by intrigues most nefarious.
Meanwhile. Jim is an intelligence officer for the English government, tasked with keeping tabs on the new nations springing up overnight. With an independent England on edge from the Global War on Terror, its population recovering from the Xian flu, and watching Europe in geopolitical freefall, there are plenty of potential threats that could catch Jim’s professional interest. So it’s telling when Jim is called in to investigate the stabbing of a man on a bus, a mere assault case that’s anything but. The victim’s identity and origin are key to a larger intrigue, where England may find itself at war with not just another state but another universe…
Europe at Midnight jumps between these two narratives, each a kind of police procedural turned spy thriller. These two entwined plots lead through a series of deep and layered secrets, all the way back to Europe in Autumn‘s big SFnal twist: the existence of another universe, overlaying Europe somehow. Not only does the novel cover a fragmented Europe continually shedding micro-states and polities, it takes several long glances at the Community, an alternate Europe crafted by some canny 18th-century cartographers who created their own world—the Europe of an Agatha Christie cozy, where a prim and proper English countryside overran the continent. One of Hutchinson’s masterstrokes with Autumn was the guidebook feel, with an overview of each polity the plot criss-crossed. Not only does that continue—here’s a glance at the Eurovision contest, already all kitsch and camp and national identity, now with 532 entries—but it takes a long look that expands upon the Community.
Needless to say, Europe at Midnight has a faster pace than its predecessor; as mentioned it jumps into Rupe’s plot without nary an aside, and continues to ramp up in intensity and mystery with every chapter. The protagonists are more mysterious and less defined than Rudi was, but are well-characterized: Rupert is like a bumbling academic, especially in the foreign land of England, while Jim is more the consummate professional. The writing and plotting are well-balanced, making for a very engaging novel—it’s a hard book to put down. I do have to say, I didn’t find it as immediately accessible; within a few pages I guessed the Campus was in a pocket-universe—the Community fresh in memory—but the sheer inexplicable weirdness of this construct was disorienting at first. And it’s worth noting that much of the novel takes place in either a pocket-universe or England, and rarely visits the fascinating geopolitical chaos on the continent.
What the Fractured Europe Sequence excels at is taking the spy thrillers of the Cold War era and recasting them as slick, modern SF. It’s a deep look at a fascinating near-future world, and a constant reminder of how history and geopolitics shape the future. An author needs to be clever and deft to handle a complex, multi-layered plot of this magnitude, and Hutchison nails it; that’s not even taking into the account the depth of this setting, furthering the real world’s complexity with science fiction. Really, quibbles aside, Europe at Midnight is a smart and sophisticated SF novel, possibly even outsmarting its readers. Luckily it continues with bragging, encouraging readers on through its engaging characterization and riveting plot. If you can stick with the convoluted plot, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most intelligent and well-written SF novels in print today.
Title: Europe at Midnight
Author: Dave Hutchinson
Release Date: 5 November 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 1781081956 / B00I3KDBD2