Europe in Autumn; Europe at Midnight; Europe in Winter
by Dave Hutchinson
[A review by David Grigg in The Fretful Porpentine #12]
The ﬁrst book in this ‘Fractured Europe’ series was recently recommended to me by Carey Handﬁeld, and I bought it as a ebook for a few dollars. Then I rapidly went out and bought the second. The third, maddeningly, wasn’t yet out, but I placed it on pre-order and it arrived a couple of weeks ago.
So I read these three books in a matter of a few weeks. And then I turned around and immediately read them all through again from cover to cover, and I’m glad I did—so much I had missed or not understood now became clear(er). But even now I’m not sure that I fully understand what has been going on, and I’m wondering if there will be a fourth or ﬁfth book in the series which may reveal more. Talk about ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma‘? (A not inappropriate quotation, as it turns out).
Where to start? Well, first we have to set the scene, which is the near-term future in Europe after the European Union has essentially broken up back into its individual nations. But the rot hasn’t stopped there, and there’s a wave of independent nations, principalities or ‘polities’ breaking off from those nations, as regional and ethnic loyalties come to the fore. This reaches an almost absurd degree, with in some cases a few blocks of some cities declaring their independence. The whole concept of the Schengen Treaty of doing away with borders in Europe is now a sad, half-forgotten joke. Borders and border controls are everywhere.
Even more interesting, a trans-continental railway line has been built from Spain through to Eastern Sibera. On its completion the company promptly declares the railway and the land immediately surrounding it to be sovereign territory, and that the Line is now an independent nation. The Lines stations are Consulates. One needs a visa to travel on the train, and to become a citizen to work for the Line. The author somehow makes this all seem perfectly rational.
We’re introduced to Rudi, the young Estonian-born chef at Restaurant Max in Krakow, in Poland. Through some shady connections of his boss Max, Rudi is eventually recruited into a shadowy organisation called Les Coureurs de Bois (“the runners of the woods”?). It’s kind of a courier operation, carrying mail and packages from one nation to another—something no longer easy, or even necessarily legal. It’s like a cross between a courier company, a smuggling ring, and an espionage outﬁt. Most governments heavily disapprove of it.
For most of the first book, were learning about Rudi and following him on the various Situations he’s placed in from time to time (while still mostly working as a chef). Some of these go well, a few go wrong, and eventually disastrously wrong. Something very strange is going on, and Rudi ﬁnds that he is being hunted and that his life is in danger. All of this (other than the slightly futuristic setting) has the engaging fascination of a spy thriller, or perhaps one of the Jason Bourne movies. Apart from the occasional use of advanced technology like ‘stealth suits’, this all seems barely like science ﬁction at all.
I can’t describe too much more without spoilers. Suffice it to say that about 80% through the first book, Rudi has ﬁnally tracked down what a dying former Coureur tells him is ‘the proof’. It’s in the deciphering of this proof that Rudi discovers a secret which does plunge us into real science ﬁction territory.
I enjoyed the second book even more than the ﬁrst, as we encounter the ﬁrst person narrative of ‘Rupert’ who lives in a vast (really vast) university campus run as a totalitarian regime, which has just undergone a bloody revolution. How this ties in with what Rudi has discovered in the first book takes quite a while to emerge.
It was really worthwhile re-reading the books. So much of what is going on in earlier parts of the narrative is explained by what comes later that you are almost compelled to go back and read those earlier passages again. It’s a tribute to how good the writing is that all three books were just as enjoyable to read again so soon.
Puzzling, challenging, but very good. Written, by someone who seems to know Eastern Europe (and the restaurant trade) very well; very clever plotting; really original concepts; great characterisation. I loved them and look forward to reading more from this author.