Money has no nationality, no allegiance. … It’s the most powerful polity of all.

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

It’s a tricky thing reviewing the third of a trilogy. However good it is it’s generally not a standalone work and the risk of spoiling previous volumes is high. That means this will not be a detailed review.

I’ve previously read Dave Hutchinson’s excellent Europe in Autumn and his very-good-but-suffers-a-bit-from-being-the-middle-book-of-a-trilogy Europe at Midnight. Outside of the blog I’ve also read a short story collection, a stand-alone short story and an excellent novella. It’s fair to say I like his work.

For those who haven’t read the previous reviews, the Europe trilogy takes place in a future Europe fragmented into micro-states and petty polities.  The European Union still exists, but most of the countries which used to comprise it don’t. Hard to imagine I know.

AIR TRAVEL IN Western and Central Europe could be tricky these days. If there was an appreciable lag between booking your ticket and actually taking your flight, there was an outside chance you’d discover that your destination airport was no longer actually in the country you wanted to go to.

In this environment of endless small borders espionage flourishes. The first novel dealt with Rudi, an Estonian cook who becomes a member of the romantically named Les Coureurs des Bois – black market smugglers of packages and people. The second features a former spymaster who nicknames himself Rupert of Hentzau and operates in a sort of alternate-history eternal 1950s England of the sort dreamt of by the more lunatic fringes of the Brexit movement:

“They’re a conservative people,” Rudi said when she told him about it. “The only African people they know about are in books.” “They need their fucking heads banging together,” she said. “Next time you’re in the countryside, stop and listen,” he told her. “No aeroplanes, no helicopters, no internal combustion. They still have steam trains. And they like it that way; it’s what they’ve been defending all these years.”

Rupert was actually a distinctly fun character and Midnight had a solid supporting cast, but it’s unchanging England was inherently less interesting than the diverse complexity of Autumn (any political implications of that are clearly entirely intentional on Hutchinson’s part). I enjoyed Midnight, but I loved Autumn.

Winter sees Rudi return and take the lead again, though Rupert continues to have a major part. Hutchinson brings together the various elements of the first two novels well and in many ways this is the best of the trilogy. It’s well written, the world is interesting, it works both as SF and as spy thriller and it’s often very funny. I could have lived without the trick of narrative economy which reveals that a character’s previously perfectly ordinary relative is in fact intrinsically and utterly coincidentally involved in the wider plot, but it’s hardly a serious flaw.

Even better, Hutchinson addresses what was probably the key weakness of the first two books which was the lack of decent female characters. It’s something he was criticised for and took on board, and happily here it’s completely corrected. Among others, there’s a likeable new character Gwen who gets drawn accidentally into the world of espionage but adapts well to it. In the previous books the character would have been male, but they don’t need to be and here Gwen is just as interesting, credible and essential a character as any of the men.

Praising an author for writing female characters as well as they do the male ones is pretty weak tea I admit – it should be a given. Unfortunately the reality is that I’ve encountered a great many male writers (including many literary ones) who either couldn’t write women or wouldn’t. It’s rare to see is someone recognise the mistake and fix it. It’s growth as an author and it’s entirely to be welcomed.

I’ve got this far without discussing the plot of Winter and to be honest I pretty much intend to maintain that. If you’ve read the first two then it’s enough to know that it continues the stories in those bringing the various strands together and answering most of the mysteries they left unanswered. If you haven’t, the plot here would make no sense anyway.

Having now read the whole trilogy the first remains my favourite, even though I think this is the best of them in many ways. The first has the advantage of a late-book swerve which I absolutely didn’t see coming and while the later books explore the consequences well you can’t really have that kind of impact on the reader twice. That said, the real question for a completed trilogy is whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and here it is – much as with William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy the third book cures the faults of the second and deepens both story and setting without losing what was good in the previous volumes.

There is arguably space left for a fourth book, but there’s certainly no need for one and much as I think these are future SF classics I’d be pretty happy to see Hutchinson leave his future Europe with a few questions left open and a few fates left undetermined. In SF as in most genres (excepting maybe crime) too much explanation leaves the reader nothing to do and it’s a trap I hope Hutchinson continues to avoid. As Rudi rightly observes:

It never tied things up nearly; no one ever got to see the whole story, and anyway the stories never ended, just branched off into infinity. You got used to that too, as a Coureur. You jumped a Package from Point A to Point B and you never knew what happened after that. Most of the time you never even knew what you were carrying.

I’ll end with one final quote. One of the banes of SF as a genre is the infodump – the scene where a character (who lives in the made-up world in question) has the setting explained to them at tedious length for the benefit of the reader (who of course doesn’t). Hutchinson needs to do a bit of that here, but he at least does so with a wink to the reader:

Rudi felt his shoulders slump. It had been an eventful day; if he had ever been unsure of what the word infodump meant, he wasn’t now.

One of the things that makes Hutchinson so very readable is the puckish sense of fun that runs through his writing. The Europe trilogy explores serious questions of national and personal identity and directly critiques a certain banal view of Britishness, but it’s never didactic. Frankly, you could ignore all that subtext and it would still be a very entertaining read. It’s just that it’s not only that.

In case it’s not already evident, I think Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy is a definite achievement. I think it’s too idiosyncratic to inspire other writers directly (like George Alec Effinger’s remarkable Budayeen trilogy) but it definitely deserves the praise it’s received. It works as science fiction and as spy fiction and as commentary on the sadly increasingly fractured and isolationist real world. I expect to read the full trilogy again at some future date, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it really given my ever-expanding to be read pile…

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6 Comments

Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, SF

6 responses to “Money has no nationality, no allegiance. … It’s the most powerful polity of all.

  1. I actually quite like the sound of the spy thriller elements of this series, so I’ll take a closer look at your review of the first one. The broader context (a fragmented Europe with shifting borders) makes it seem like a timely read – I couldn’t help but smile at that quote about air travel.

  2. I like the first quote a lot. I’m not in the market for a trilogy at the moment (have to finish the Louise Welsh trilogy first) but this one sounds attractive.
    And I know what you mean about mentioning the female characters. I just read a review of a book in which someone mention that all the characters were male and the females were just asides. Made me think perhaps I didn’t want to read it.

  3. Came back and reread this and this time picked up on the Rupert of Hentzau reference. Loved that book (and The Prisoner of Zenda) in childhood.

  4. It’s definitely SF Jacqui, but with a distinctly spy thrillery tone. I think they’re very good but no idea if you’d take to them or not. You could always try one and see…

    Guy, he’s very quotable. I saw another review describe his style as sardonic and that’s a very good word for him. I think they’re a lot of fun with some underlying points to make about European identity and so on (but not overlaboured points). They do get more SFish as the series goes on, which makes sense since as the series advances the reader is more familiar with its concepts, but it remains driven very much by people rather than inventions or whatever (well, the plot is driven by an invention of sorts, but it’s what people do with it that makes the story).

    I think a lot of books unfortunately have female characters essentially in supporting roles only. If it’s a particular book set in a milieu where there wouldn’t be many women – a prison or a novel set at the front in wartime or whatever – then OK but mostly it’s not that is it? Espionage is a funny one. The spy genre tends to be very male dominated, but my impression is that that’s not particularly true to life and reflects more on the authors than the world they portray. In literary fiction I think it’s unforgivable, and sadly still not as rare as it should be.

  5. As you know SF is not my cup of tea but I like the sound of this trilogy, probably because the theme is so timely and the quotes are good.

    PS: I didn’t know the expression “it’s pretty weak tea” and it made me laugh because in French we’d say “c’est fort de café” (“it’s pretty strong coffee”)

  6. I think you might find some parts of this trying as ultimately it is still very much SF, albeit something of an SF/spy hybrid. It’s well written though so you never know.

    Funnily enough it’s not a phrase I use normally, but it seemed to fit here. A reflection of national history I guess.

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