Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Perhaps no one was more surprised at the success of 2014’s Europe in Autumn than Dave Hutchinson himself. The novel’s ending what Adam Roberts described as a “knight’s move”, it did, however, give Hutchinson room—a lot of room—to expand the story. Opting for the series route, in 2015 a second novel appeared, Europe at Midnight. Running parallel to Autumn rather than extending its storyline, Hutchinson dug into the new setting presented by the knight’s move, while introducing other players in the game. 2016 sees the release of Europe in Winter (Solaris), the next (and penultimate?) novel in Hutchinson’s Fragmented Europe setting.

Rudi, the central figure of Europe in Autumn, was essentially a non-factor in Europe at Midnight. But he returns in Europe in Winter as the crux. While much of the narrative focuses on new characters and scenes, Rudi’s actions and decisions are the main river into which those tributaries dump their story. In fact, his drive to use the Coureurs to get into the nuts and bolts of the Community is the hinge upon which the novel swings. Perhaps the most plot-heavy novel of the series to date, Rudi’s deeper interest in the Community is triggered by a terrorist event on the Line at the outset of the novel. The Line a railway that is likewise as a polity, its autonomous traverse of the European continent is interrupted by a massive bomb. Not everything as it appears in the clean up, answers to Rudi’s questions are not readily available, and the further he digs, the larger the implications for Europe—fragmented, united, or alternate(d)—become.

Perhaps the most satisfactory novel of the Fragmented Europe series to date from a plot standpoint, Europe in Winter takes Hutchinson’s talent for indirect yarn spinning and integrates it tightly with uncovering the backstory of the Community, as well as its relevance to a Europe busted into small pieces. Leaving passive readers in the dust, the novel (and series thus far) shine for the ability to perpetually relocate the reader to an unexpected point in the overall story, forcing them to work their way, one logical step at a time (as steadily doled out by Hutchinson), back to common ground, with the reward being a leg up in the information games being played by the characters. In short, Winter is the most dramatic, spy v. spy story yet, and as such will have readers interested in ‘big reveals’ gratified come the conclusion. The ending, while not exactly a cliffhanger, does require that additional story be told, but there remains a vibe of “now the rubber has really hit the road...

While I suspect most readers will find Winter the best, for me Europe in Autumn remains the pure, unsullied product and the best of the series to date. Hutchinson took his time (years) building a narrative, allowing it to develop in organic fashion, and left it all on the doorstep of wonder—a slingshot ending that didn’t require explanation despite that it was mysterious. In Europe at Midnight, and now Winter, Hutchinson shifts the focus from character to story to explain said mystery. To be fair, the shift is subtle. Hutchinson continues in the mode of dropping the reader into seemingly random characters’ lives, then slowly reining in the elements common to the story at large. But Rudi’s personal account, which was the central element of Autumn, takes a backseat to explaining the slingshot in Midnight and Winter. Another way of putting this is, the pertinence of European political fragmentation as relayed through Rudi’s perspective is set aside in favor of a scaffolding of characters and interests that exist to explain the mystery of the Community. The novel includes terrorism, commercial exploitation of weaker nations by the stronger, and unexpected mass immigration—all concerns akin to real-world Europe today. But they are largely background, not issues examined with scrutiny or even metaphorically. This is not to say Europe in Winter must be a political novel per se, only that in comparison to Autumn it is less so due to the plot rather than character focus. And I daresay, on a word for word basis, Autumn remains the most polished, precise, and clever of the three.

But don’t let my detail niggling lead you to believe Europe in Winter is somehow poor product. Such is certainly not the case. It, and the series as a whole, remain the most refined spy-thriller material science fiction has to offer. Even if Hutchinson chose to go the non-political route with his politicized setting, it remains hugely unique. Moreover, despite that Fragmented Europe is an accidental series, Hutchinson has made the most of the first book, taking the storyline in engaging, interesting directions, and proving Le Carre can be rendered in sf with integrity. Now for Europe at Dawn...

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