After more than a decade between novels, Dave Hutchinson has become positively prolific. Producing a third novel a little more than a year after the second, one has to ask: why? I guess a setting as intriguing as Europe in Autumn is too rich not to contain further tales. Europe at Midnight (Rebellion, 2015) is the follow up, giving rise to an additional question: can its interaction with European culture and possible near-future EU reality be as deceivingly sublime as Autumn?
Before I answer that question, I will jump back a little. Europe in Autumn finished on what Adam Roberts called a ‘knight’s move’. While for me the conclusion was checkmate in three moves, other people thought things were left unifinished—more of the game to be played, which begs Hutchinson’s own question: what relationship would the new novel bear to the first novel? The author’s friends’ reply? Spinoff. Accordingly, Europe at Midnight is not a continuation of Rudi’s story from Autumn, rather an expansion of the near-future EU Rudi lives in - and discovered at the conclusion of Autumn.
We get acquainted with Rupert of Hentzau at the outset of Midnight. An intelligence officer living in a bizarre hierarchical state that seems to have more than one toe set outside of our reality, he finds himself investigating dead bodies dredged up from a river, all the while attempting to keep academics at the University he polices in line. Coming to the the possibility the dead were part of a larger group who succeeded in escaping the University, he has to wonder: escape to where?
The second storyline of Europe at Midnight is occupied by another intelligence officer, Jim. Living in now sovereign England, he is a member of His Majecty’s Security Services and is called to a London bus stop where a man has been stabbed under strange circumstances. England having bunkered itself down into a police state in its War On Terror, Jim slogs through the levels of government and information he gleans—real and otherwise—trying to get to the real identity of the assault victim and his larger purpose.
Working with a relatively similar idea from Hutchinson’s short story “The Fortunate Isle,” I don’t suppose it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Rupert’s University is a pocket universe, separate from European reality. (This fact is revealed within a few chapters, even as Autumn ended in a different reality.) What is not clear, however, is who created the pocket universe and why?
Faster paced than Europe in Autumn, Midnight moves simultaneously through two police procedurals. Where Autumn balanced character, plot, and setting, Midnight is more plot-centric, but does introduce the setting of the University. What I’m about to say is certainly more preference than objective critique, so take it with a grain of salt. The pocket universe threw me for a loop in Autumn. By introducing the impossible to the yet possible, it undermined the realism of the setting - a setting the didn't seem to require any additional fireworks to be engaging. The coureurs in Autumn were the perfect device to explore the nuances of a Europe disintegrated into innumerable polities and nation-states. The drama of the agents’ lives and activities thrived in such a border-restricted setting, making for good reading. Conversely, the fragmentation of Europe plays a tiny role in Midnight. About 90% of the novel takes place in England or the pocket universe. In fact, if Hutchinson had simply set the story in a near-future Europe, given the novel a less inferential title, and changed a couple characters names, it quite easily could be separate novel—so under-used is Autumn’s setting. All that being said, there are undoubtedly readers who enjoy such injections of ‘extra-reality,’ so judge for yourself.
As I run the risk of sounding petty, I would quickly say that no matter the plot intrinsic or extrinsic to Autumn, Midnight reads engagingly well. Using a similar structure, that of a plot chopped into pieces time-wise with major gaps between sections, the reader becomes increasingly engrossed in learning what the nature of the pocket universe is as the gaps are filled. While far more overt than Autumn, the spy vs. spy of Midnight is exciting. Mysterious dealings by mafia, government agents, and unidentifiables manipulating and manipulated by Rupert and Jim, the resulting story can be dense and satisfying as Autumn—something which readers who enjoy puzzling out undercurrents of reality will certainly appreciate.
In the end, Europe at Midnight is a semi-departure from Europe in Autumn, a branch of a railroad—if I may user the cover art as metaphor—rather than a journey to the next stop on the line. Mode and voice remain the same, but the one major element of Autumn's conclusion becomes the focus, and in turn shifting the focus away from a balkanized Europe. Less character driven and more focused on layered plotting, where Europe in Autumn was more comparable to a John Le Carre, Ken Macleod or Christopher Priest novel, Europe at Midnight leans toward Tim Power’s Declare or the work of Charles Stross in its imaginative excursions. Whether the new elements are allegorical or simply part of the story, however, remains for the third and final volume to answer—and I will read it.