2 November 2016

Europe in Winter

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Europe in Winter (Fractured Europe 3)
Dave Hutchinson
Solaris, 3 November 2016
PB, 320pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book.

It was hard to be certain who was running the world any more, although obviously it wasn't the people who thought they were.

This is the third book in Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence (I hope that it being a sequence not a trilogy means there is more on the way - I want to read more, and by the end of this book a great deal is left intriguingly unresolved).

It is the mid to late 21st century. Europe has devolved into its default condition for much of history - a collection of pocket states, principalities, duchies, free cities and territories, the EU a vestige of its former state (but with money!) the UK divided. (I'd love to borrow Mr Hutchinson's crystal ball, especially with reference to next week's Lottery numbers...)

The main transnational, unifying feature in this Europe was thought to be the Line, a railway running from Portugal to Siberia, which is itself sovereign. Europe at Midnight revealed another: a second Europe, hidden in old maps and accessible only where the topology is right. The Community was invented - laid out, surveyed - by an English family, beginning in the 19th century, and it has a certain tweediness: they can't make good wine there because such a thing wasn't contemplated by the Founders. But you can - if you know how - cross into the Community, travel through it, and come out somewhere else - making the Line somewhat moot.

The Community and Europe are now in an awkward state of detente, pre full Union - but it is a fragile state, beset by espionage, suspicion and sabotage.

Against this background, Europe in Winter is less a single narrative, a chunk of plot, but more but a series of vignettes, set in this time and place, slowly adding up to an impression of a story which Hutchinson avoids telling as a story. Instead, you have to infer it (although there is a bit of a recap at the end for anyone who's been a bit slow).

A reckless act of terrorism aboard a train. A cat and mouse game in the Warsaw Underground. Conspiracy theorists crossing with real agents in Luxembourg. Murder on an island off Estonia. A trail of money.

At the centre of it, as always, is the urbane Rudi, chef, member of les Courreurs des Bois and former infiltrator of the Community. He's a man equally at home amidst the clamour of a busy kitchen, and trading identities is the backstreets of London. We meet him at the start of this book on familiar territory, in Max's restaurant... but something isn't quite right here and when we know what it is, there's the first clue to what is going on.

Again and again he pops up, sometimes observing, sometimes acting - often in danger, usually in control. And each time, Hutchinson drops him into another little vignette, like a cooler version of George Smiley. There are so many situations (and Situations) here that it would be silly to try and list them all (as well as spoilery) and it would miss the point: it's the cumulative effect that counts. Not only the atmosphere that Hutchinson engenders - the subtle spycraft, dodging a tail in the snowy Luxembourg streets or arranging a meet in a deserted English parish church - but also the characters: he's endlessly inventive at making real not only the major players but all the little people - the tired nurse getting ready to go to work, the tunnelling contractor in his office, the woman doing a favour for a friend and in deeper than she realises.

And the language: the book is written in a cool, knowing tone ("It could have been any day, any year. Only the drunks changed..." "Not my circus; not my monkeys") that's well suited to the subject and well suited to, especially, Rudi's viewpoint - collected, and in charge, even when baffled by events.

Frankly I could read this forever. I don't care whether or not it ever converges to a definite plot, I just want to go on, seeing the layers peel away, shuffling the jigsaw pieces around, reading backwards and forwards to check details. Hutchinson's writing is almost interactive in the way it gives you and evolving problem to engage with

And it is a problem in every sense of the word. In a world already complicated enough, we see additional layers, whole aspects of reality that were previously unsuspected. It's an achievement to pull the rug from under your readers as thoroughly as Hutchinson does here, more so for the third book in a sequence when normally you might be expecting things to start resolving.

All in all, a gem of a book, easily as good as, possibly better than, its predecessors and promising so much more in this fractured world.

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