Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
A fractured Europe, a cook-turned-spy, a mighty web of espionage – but what happens when conspiracy threatens to overwhelm even reality itself?
Europe in Autumn is a dystopian SF espionage thriller that evokes the Cold War novels of John Le Carré and the nightmarish world of Franz Kafka, taking place in a war and disease-torn Europe of hundreds of tiny nations.
Rudi is a cook in a Kraków restaurant, but when boss asks him to help a cousin escape from the country he’s trapped in, a new career – part spy, part people-smuggler – begins.
Recruited by the shadowy organisation Les Coureurs des Bois, Rudi is schooled in espionage. When he is sent to smuggle someone out of Berlin and finds a severed head inside a locker instead, a conspiracy begins to wind itself around him.
With kidnapping, double-crosses and a map that constantly re-draws itself, Europe in Autumn is a modern science fiction thriller like no other.
Ok, I’ll admit it. I am more than fashionably late when it comes to this particular party. What can I say? The life of a book reviewer is a battle against the same ever encroaching horror – so many books, so little time. Why did I decide to pick up Europe in Autumn then? The quick answer is I read the synopsis for its sequel, Europe at Midnight, and was suitably intrigued. I’m not a fan of starting a series anywhere other than the first book so I made the decision to start at the only sensible place, the beginning.
Dave Hutchinson’s vision of future Europe is a fragmented continent made up of tiny fiefdoms and power hungry groups. All are hell bent on grabbing as much control as they can. These various factions are focused on carving up the map in such a way that they end up with as much real estate as the can manage to get. Borders have become fluid and moving around has become an art in itself.
The narrative follows Rudi through various different points in his early career. From his initial floundering steps as a raw, somewhat naive, agent still learning all the aspects of his new tradecraft, to the more self-assured operative who continually checks all the angles. It is fascinating to watch how the character evolves. One of the things I particularly like is that each of the chapters is almost completely self-contained. Though there is an over-arching plot, each time we see Rudi things feel episodic in nature. I also picked up on the growing sense of unease and paranoia in the character. Each step Rudi takes leads him to a revelation and the writing does a superb job of building to that moment.
The plot also gives the author opportunity to explore the politics of Europe. The story touches upon everything from the global war on terror, to the upheaval in the Balkans. From the re-emergence of the far right and neo-Nazis in Germany, to the potential future for the United Kingdom. It feels like the events in this novel are almost a natural continuation from the current political climate we find ourselves in. There is a horrible sense of Orwellian inevitability about it all that appeals to my inner-masochist. Mr Hutchison is giving us a glimpse of an all too possible future. The scary thing is that much of it appears like it could easily be real.
As an aside, it’s not often I find myself doing research when it comes to book reviews, but this one piqued my interest. According to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, coureur des bois translates as runner of the woods. After reading further, it seems an entirely appropriate nom de guerre for a clandestine international organisation responsible for specialist jobs that can often be viewed as, at best, morally ambiguous.
This was an absolutely corking read. I love it when I start a book I know absolutely nothing about, and by the end I am in awe. There is a blissful moment when the author throws a literary equivalent of a curveball into the plot that caught me completely unaware. You’ll know it when it happens. I had to re-read the page more than once just to make sure I understood the implications of what was happening. Brilliantly unexpected plots twists are a thing of wonder, and I relish them entirely.
If I’m honest, as a genre, I sometimes struggle a bit with science fiction. In this case however the writing is so smart I didn’t spot the subtle science-fictiony elements even creeping in. By the time I had realised they were there, I was already enjoying them too much to worry about it. If you’re looking for a near-future thriller with an elegant science fiction feeling, then look no further. This is highly recommended. In fact, someone needs to develop this series for the screen, that would be amazing.
Europe in Autumn is published by Solaris Books and is available now. Its sequel, Europe at Midnight, has just been published this week. I enjoyed my experience with this first book so much I’ll be reading that next immediately.