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Review: Europe in Winter

By / February 15, 2017 / no comments

There is a problem with writing a series, a problem that is inherent in the very structure of the work. The fact that it is a series demands that each volume offers more of the same (as, probably, do many of the fans); yet that way lies simple repetition, and what is really needed is novelty. Unfortunately, introducing novelty can jar with what has gone before, upsetting fans and making each successive volume feel less and less as if it belongs with its predecessors.

Writers have dealt with this dilemma in a variety of ways. Some of the very best series (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe) are really just one novel split over three or four volumes. Other series (The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson) are spread over such a large canvas and such an immense timescale that radical change is built in to the very structure of the work.

But these examples are exceptions. We all know too many series where each succeeding volume may introduce a new antagonist or some other new threat to the heroes, but in every other respect is little more than a rewrite of what has gone before. They work simply because many of the readers want more of the same: they like the characters or the setting and want another visit that recapitulates whatever they liked about it the last time. These can be satisfying as comfort reading, but all too often they are not.

Europe in WinterIn Europe in Winter, the third volume in his Fractured Europe sequence, Dave Hutchinson finds his own clever way through this dilemma.

The cleverest part is that he finds loose ends in the first two volumes that most readers wouldn’t have recognised as loose ends. Thus, inEurope In Autumn Europe in Autumn, Rudi’s visit to his father in the Estonian forest that his father is trying to turn into an independent statelet, has a bloody ending that hastens the next stage in Rudi’s journey. But the issue seems clear cut and resolved. Only now we learn that there were reasons for trying to declare the forest independent that we could not have guessed from the partial information we had at the time. Reasons that also throw a curious light upon Rudi’s father. And inEurope at Midnight Europe at Midnight the mission to penetrate behind the wall of the security-obsessed Republic of Dresden-Neustadt was one of the more comic episodes in the novel and a neat way of linking that book to the disintegrating Europe we had encountered in the first book. But now we learn there was more to that episode, that the computing power at the command of Dresden-Neustadt is in part behind moves that are further destabilising Europe, furthermore that the person who escaped Dresden-Neustadt holds a secret we couldn’t really guess from what we saw in that novel.

This isn’t cheating the readers who have followed the story through these three novels, because the structure of Europe in Winter is one of slow discovery and revelation. If the key inspiration behind all of these novels is John Le Carré, then Europe in Winter is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a slow and patient piecing together of a puzzle that leads to a revelation close to home. And if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is perhaps the best of Le Carré’s Smiley novels, then Europe in Winter is perhaps the best of the Fractured Europe sequence.

It is the novel that brings back Rudi, the charismatic chef-cum-agent at the heart of Europe in Autumn who was all but absent from Europe at Midnight. But this isn’t the same Rudi; like Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he is older (there are frequent references to the grey in his hair), more weary, more doubting, more cynical, but also more determined, ready to follow a faint and worrying trail even if he’d rather not go where it takes him.

And if Hutchinson is playing to the fans by reintroducing a popular hero, he is equally prepared to upset the delicate balance of the sequence by introducing yet another new antagonist. Or is he? As with the loose ends buried unrecognised in the earlier volumes, this antagonist has been there all along, we just haven’t paid it any attention. Now we learn that an old dog, so decrepit we had naturally assumed it was all but defunct, still has sharp teeth. But we see the effects of its bite long before we work out who is doing the biting: in a nicely controlled sequence of revelations we follow Rudi as he chases down a series of clues that seem to make no sense, only as the book draws to its conclusion do they come together in a way that allows Rudi, and us, to glimpse the power he has been struggling against all the way through.

One of the things I really like about this series of books is the way the covers (by Clint Langley) reflect not just the title but the structure of the work. Thus Europe in Autumn, in which our focus is entirely upon Rudi, features one face and a train in autumnal browns. Europe at Midnight, in which the story alternates between Rupert of Henzau (who also appears here) and a weary detective turned spy, features two faces and a train in midnight blues. Europe in Winter shows three faces and a train in wintery whites and greys. Although the focus is on rather more than three characters. Rudi may be the star of the show (although in the first chapter in which we meet him he seems to have been reset to a time roughly equivalent to the opening of Europe in Autumn, which may be a red herring or it may be laying down a loose end to be picked up in the fourth volume), but he is far from being the sole focus of the book. In every other chapter we find ourselves behind the eyes of a new character – a pair of terrorists, an assassin, a minor civil servant on a mission that goes dreadfully wrong, a tunnel engineer seeking two workmen who have disappeared, a journalist in Hungary who unexpectedly finds herself hunted by the mafia and the security services. Sometimes the trajectories of these characters bring them into Rudi’s orbit, and they add another enigmatic piece to the slowly evolving puzzle; sometimes their part in the story seems obscure at best, a hint of another story unfolding beneath the one we are being told.

This is a patient book, it does not rush its revelations and should not be rushed. As in the previous volumes there is a vivid sense of place, particularly the many scenes set in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe, but it is a restless book that does not dwell long in any one location. We move from a gridlocked Paris to the Line (the transEuropean rail line stretching from Portugal to Siberia that is an independent state thousands of miles long but only a few yards wide), from a Polish restaurant to a Luxembourg museum, from a crater in Sakhalin to a Swedish wilderness, and on, criss-crossing the continent. Always there is the shadow of the Community, the parallel reality in which the entire continental landmass has been transformed into a sort of little England, and that may be a threat or a promise to everyone in this fractured Europe. But now, as Europe and the Community edge towards diplomatic recognition, there seems to be a new player in the game, something referred to as the Realm, though it is never entirely clear what the Realm may be. What does it mean when a fraction of the Community suddenly materialises in the middle of Luxembourg, or when Heathrow Airport is translated wholesale into the Community? And what does any of this have to do with the fact that Rudi’s father had two different birth certificates?

How the pieces are eventually fitted together is what makes this such a satisfying book. Yet it is a mystery story told with a mixture of wit and cynicism that is entirely engaging. Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight were undoubtedly among the best books of their years, but Europe in Winter lifts the sequence to an entire new level.

Buy Europe in Winter from Amazon.

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