Solaris, 10 November 2022
Available as: PB 417pp, audio, e
Available as: PB 417pp, audio, e
Cold Water is a return to the world of Hutchinson's Fractured Europe, some time after the events of Europe in Autumn, Europe At Midnight, Europe at Dawn and Europe in Winter. It doesn't assume any familiarity with those, although if you are you'll be rewarded by posting some referencing and of course you will have a head start in understanding the background. This is a world devastated by a viral plague; a world where the states of Europe have fragmented into statelets, free towns and pocket republics; and a world interpenetrated by alternate, pocket universes.
Against that background, we're given a twisty, tense and involving thriller mixing espionage, crime and derring-do. Carey Tews, a woman from the Republic of Taxes, has retired from the shadowy network Les Coureurs. She reckons she's getting too old for the work, and besides, her cover blown by what happened in Hungary (don't talk to her about Hungary!) But like Smiley of old, she's invited back to carry out One Last Job when her recruiter, mentor, and sometime lover, Maksim, gets himself killed in a little Polish town that's winding up to declare independence.
The story also follows Krista, a young Estonian police woman, whose investigation into a gangster's operations in Tallinn is rudely interrupted by scandal from the past, by way of Russian agents, a drunken journalist, and a crew of juvenile hackers and forgers who get you any credentials you might need. As always with Hutchinson's books the detail and plotting is meticulous, creating set-ups and pay-offs that are just so good, they could hang as works of art in any museum. There are mysteries here - so I am being vague about what actually happens - and they're fiendishly nested mysteries, so that while I spotted one or two points coming, the how and the why of their fit with the wider story absolutely took me by surprise.
There are some superb characters here too. Carey is just magnificent, a richly portrayed, complex woman who - whatever she believes - is at the top of her game. I love reading stories in which competent, experienced people meet difficult challenges head on: books where you have a sense that there is just so much happening - real danger combined with plausible, calculated courses of action... which don't always come off.
Depicting all that background doesn't make the story slow, not at all - there is plenty going on here from the start, which opens with a clandestine meet that wouldn't be out of place in the (old style, TV) Mission: Impossible, to the conclusion - a tense, high stakes confrontation at a deserted border post. The pace never lets up, with the parts dealing with Carey's history actually adding tension because - as we empathise more and more with her - we see just how impossible is the task she's undertaken (and why she didn't want it).
(In passing, I was particularly impressed by the way that is able to leverage the experience of covid to locate his story even more sharply in the imagined future (middle of the 21st century?) His "Xian 'flu" isn't covid, it is even more devastating - and it was mentioned in the earlier books. Still, the experience of lockdown, of helplessness as friends and loved ones succumb and the reality that things have changed, is deep in the DNA of this book making very real speculative fiction).
Vastly enjoyable, fun, and sharply observed. Read it.
For more information about Cold Water, see the publisher's website here.