Friday 13 November 2015

Book Review | Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

In a fractured Europe, new nations are springing up everywhere, some literally overnight. 

For an intelligence officer like Jim, it’s a nightmare. Every week or so a friendly power spawns a new and unknown national entity which may or may not be friendly to England’s interests. It’s hard to keep on top of it all. But things are about to get worse for Jim. 

A stabbing on a London bus pitches him into a world where his intelligence service is preparing for war with another universe, and a man has come who may hold the key to unlocking Europe’s most jealously-guarded secret...


A great many maps were made in Europe in the Middle Ages. Foremost among them were the Mappae Mundi: "maps of the world" meant not as navigational aids but to illustrate different principles—the earth's spherical shape, say, or its flora and fauna. Such scrolls represented repositories of medieval knowledge, but even the most definitive had their limits; here be lions and the like was oft-enscribed where the unknown roamed. The Ebstorfer Mappa Mundi, for instance, depicts a dragon to the east of Africa—also asps and basilisks, presumably because it was better to show something than nothing; better, according to that thought process, to invent the positively extraordinary than to admit the littlest deficiency.

In this day and age, we expect rather more from our maps than that. We demand that they are exact, in fact—detailed to the nearest nanometre at least! And perhaps they are. But you know what? I hope to God not. If we're to understand that modern maps are absolutely accurate, then there remains nothing about the world we do not know, and me... I love a bit of a mystery. Which might be why I loved Europe at Midnight. That and a hundred other reasons, even.

The second section of the sequence Dave Hutchinson kicked off with Europe in Autumn—an "awesome concoction of sci-fi and spies" which went on to be nominated for a whole hodgepodge of awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke—Europe at Midnight is damn near the definition of unpredictable. It doesn't pick up where its predecessor left off, with Rudi welcomed into another world; indeed, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the glorified postman who was our last protagonist. Instead, the story, told by two brand new narrators, starts in a strange country—one of the milieu's proliferation of pocket nations, maybe—called the Campus:
The Campus was made up of four hundred Schools, scattered over an area about two hundred miles across and surrounded by mountains. Opinions differed over whether we sat in the bottom of the caldera of an ancient supervolcano, which was a charming thought, or the crater of a colossal prehistoric meteor strike, but to be honest nobody was thinking very hard about those theories at the moment. (p.29)
Why? Because the Campus is under new management following the overthrow of the oppressive Old Board, which left a mountain of mass graves in its wake, and an impoverished population. Unfortunately, well-meaning as it may be, the New Board doesn't have the slightest clue what it's doing, and though he has his own array of failings, no one knows this better than Richard, or rather Rupert of Hentzau—The Prisoner of Zenda, anyone?—"the worst Professor of Intelligence the Campus had ever had." (p.19)

Said sorry state of affairs isn't on him, however:
Part of the problem was that we just couldn't trust the few members of the Intelligence Faculty who were left alive, so I'd had to rebuild it from scratch, mostly with people who immediately changed their minds when they discovered that intelligence work was less like a John Buchan novel and more like being a particularly nosy village postmaster. (p.19)
Poor Rupe clearly has his work cut out for him, but when he discovers the hastily-burned bodies of a host of human beings genetically engineered to have working wings and whatnot, he puts his other assorted responsibilities on pause to look into a sickening conspiracy which not a few folks from Science City are complicit in. Little does Rupe realise that his investigation will culminate in a catastrophe that could collapse the entire Campus...

Meanwhile, in England, one of His Majesty's own operatives is asked to ask after the attempted murder of a man on a public bus: a superficially simple case Jim is disturbed to discover has roots in a parallel reality. "This time yesterday, he had been a middle-ranking member of the Security Service. Now he appeared to be one of the point-men in the opening moves of an intelligence war" (p.82) on another world:
The gist of it is that two hundred years ago a landowning family in Nottinghamshire somehow created an English county to the west of London. They called it 'Ernshire'. We don't know how they did it, but we have circumstantial evidence than Ernshire was, and presumably still is, a real thing. The map which may have shown routes into and out of Ernshire has disappeared; no one knows how to visit it or even contact it. (p.75)
What follows, for Jim, is "an exercise [...] not unlike Second World War reconnaissance, looking at images of the same scene taken days apart and trying to spot troop movements." (p.211) Rupe, in the interim, reels from a related revelation. Over the course of Europe at Midnight, these two tales twist and turn and eventually, inevitably, come together—to tremendous effect.

Wonderful as Europe in Autumn was, I believe book two might be better yet. It's certainly more accessible than its predecessor, which ran the risk of repelling the less than dedicated by masking its main character and repeatedly pulling the rug from under its readers. Here, on the other hand, Hutchinson gives us two through-lines—though I'd note that neither one is exactly what it appears to be—and a pair of more immediately appealing protagonists.

Transparent—relative to Rudi—as they are, Rupe and Jim are cannily characterised: one's a bit bumbling, the other's a perfect professional; one has a sense of humour, the other doesn't; and both, but of course, have personal lives Hutchinson peppers the proceedings with—personal lives that give them an emotional stake in the top secret operation this novel chronicles.

There's something brilliantly British—and as such, singularly ham-fisted—about the espionage our odd couple are involved in. Perhaps surprisingly, Europe at Midnight is a fairly hilarious spy story, not least because it's so self-aware. "Everything seemed to take place in an atmosphere conjured up from early le Carre and Deighton and films like The Man Who Never Was" (pp.222-223) which is fitting as far as it goes, except for the fact that Hutchinson's narrative and characters are rather less... glamorous.

"A mad story about a family of wizards and a map" (p.104) it may be, but Europe at Midnight is as rich and as relevant as its predecessor. It's funny, fantastical, readable and remarkable regardless of your prior experience of the series. Which just goes to show that, like the Mappae Mundi I mentioned earlier, no matter how well you think you know something—or someone, or somewhere, or somewhen—there's almost always more to the story.


Europe at Midnight
by Dave Hutchinson

UK & US Publication: November 2015, Solaris

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  1. Do you think it might be all right to start with this one?

  2. Absolutely. Hutchinson does a damn fine job of repeating everything readers such as yourself will need to follow Europe at Midnight without even seeming to—though let me say again that, though it's harder work than this one, Europe in Autumn is awesome.