29 July 2018

Review - The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield

Cover by Natasha MacKenzie
The War in the Dark
Nick Setchfield
Titan Books, 17 July 2018
PB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a copy of The War in the Dark for review.

1963, and SIS assassin Christopher Winter is on the brink. He's caught between postwar austerity (bombed out building from the War still feature) and a 60s that has yet to begin swinging. He's a murderer, working in the service of law and freedom. It's a tangibly sooty, smoky world of depressing brownish cafes and Bakelite, set against the alluring prospect of technological white heat and progress.

But now, Winter's about to step into a war with the invisible powers, the rulers and principalities of this age, a war fought with runes and rituals and arcane knowledge that seem centuries away from satellites, nuclear weapons and computers.

It all begins with a routine job, the offing of a priest who's been selling secrets to the Russians. Winter's never killed a priest before, but why not? Things don't, though, go according to plan and soon there;s a trail of blood across London and Winter's encountering the Almost men. Convinced that he's been betrayed, he puts together what clues he can and head for Vienna...

This blend of the occult and espionage moves at a brisk pace. While it's clear there is a bigger picture, and the hints that Setchfield drops will eventually build to reveal what it is, the focus is mainly on Winter's immediate plight, hunted by all sides - the Russians, his own Service and shadowier enemies as well. There's no need, I think, to worry too yard about the trail that he's following as it leads him from one confrontation to the next - rather, one might worry about where he's going and what he will do when he gets there. Because Christopher Winter does have skin in this game, even if he doen't realise it. In fact, in a sense he is the skin in the game.

In counterpoint to Winter we also see the progress of a mysterious figure, Hart. Between them, he and Winter hold the fate of nations, of universes. But, enmeshed as they are in the rivalry between a decaying Empire and a rising Soviet Union, will they be able to do their duty - and what will that cost?

I enjoyed this mixture of treachery, blood and magic. Setchfield explores a crossover I've seen dealt with in various ways - from the World War Two sage of Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds trilogy to Tim Powers' Le Carre-esque Declare to Charles Stross's Laundry books, but The War in the Dark carves out its own distinctive space infused with a sense of paranoia and doubt that seems to foreshadow the domestic political chicanery of the 70s rather than the Great Game played against Russia (another way, perhaps, in which Winter is on the edge of a change).

It is an absorbing book, one which kept me guessing till the end and one which palpably creates a wider world to which I hope Setchfield can return, with or without Christopher Winter.

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