Obviously, the world and everything in it had been stupid since the dawn of time. It was just that, every now and again, there seemed to be a surge in stupid and there was nothing anyone could do about it except hang on and hope things would get better soon.
This is the fourth novel in Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence. I’ve previously reviewed the first three. Europe At Dawn weaves itself around the storylines from those earlier novels, reintroducing many characters, providing background to events from the previous books, and culminating in a resolution to some of the plot strands. The publisher’s blurb on the back hails this one as, “The phenomenal conclusion to the Fractured Europe series”, and Hutchinson, too, seems pretty clear that he’s winding things up. In the acknowledgements at the back of the book he writes:
And here we are, finally. End of the Line. It’s been a wild ride; I certainly had no idea, when I finished [Europe In] Autumn, that it would take us so far or involve quite so many books. But now it’s done.
(You need to have read the books to understand the pun underlying that capitalized “Line”.)
And yet. The resolution in the last few pages of this novel introduces a whole new layer of complexity to the story, and leaves things in a state of tension and potential instability. Should Hutchinson ever wish to come back to this world, he has ample scope to continue the sequence.
The backdrop to these novels is a near-future Europe, fractured by internal disputes as the European Union falls apart under the combined impact of a worsening refugee crisis and a devastating flu pandemic. Borders are closed by anxious governments, and a wave of nationalism and populism sweeps the continent, with tiny new nation-states declaring independence everywhere. The old free movement of people and goods is ended—creating a market for any organization that has the ability to move “packages” from one country to another, no questions asked, without having them exposed to multiple customs checks. This is what the anarchic Coureurs des Bois do, using a combination of spy tradecraft and smuggling tricks, lovingly described by Hutchinson (who appears to be a serious John le Carré fan).
The Coureurs have been one narrative thread running through Fractured Europe—by their very nature, they tend to get caught up in major geopolitical events. One Coureur in particular recurs throughout the books—Rudi, an Estonian chef working in Poland, and a more-or-less reluctant recruit to the Coureurs, provides an increasingly disillusioned but nevertheless determinedly honourable point of view.
But Hutchinson’s narratives have always shifted from one point-of-view character to another. In the first few chapters of this novel he introduces us to Pete and Angie, who own a canal narrowboat, and who very occasionally are asked to pick up people at odd locations in the canal network; Alice, working at the Scottish Embassy in Estonia, who becomes embroiled in a situation that starts with a fractious folk group and a jewelled skull, and ends in murder; and Benno, a North African refugee who has been stuck in a UN camp on a Greek island for years without hope—until one day a body washes ashore, bringing with it a mobile phone and a gun.
The other narrative thread in these novels has been the existence of the Community—the inhabitants of a different version of Europe, which exists in a parallel universe. Travel between the two different versions of Europe is only possible in certain places—the means of creating and controlling these access points became a significant plot element in the previous novels, and Hutchinson further explores the consequences in this one.
You’ll have gathered by now that the Fractured Europe narrative is now so complicated that you really shouldn’t even attempt to dive straight in to this fourth novel. Even if you’ve been reading them all as they were published, you’d be well-advised to go back and re-read the first three before getting into this one.
Like its predecessors, this one can be read as a good spy thriller, full of tradecraft, chases and escapes. And it’s a wry reflection on human nature, about how good people can end up doing bad things. And it’s an allegory of sorts, too. Hutchinson relishes European diversity (the varied architecture and cuisine of the locations in his novels are lovingly described) and mourns the retreat into nationalism and populism that is so evident in today’s politics—his Fractured Europe is just our Europe, except with the control knobs twisted a little farther over. And the Community, an empty alternate Europe colonized from our England centuries ago, is a vehicle for Hutchinson’s bleak view of the potential fruits of populism:
Rupert picked up the other photos and sorted through them, frowning. “He’s got other problems, over there. A lot of English people are emigrating to the Community. English English people.”
“Ah.” For a certain type of English person, the Community was a wet-dream of Return, a place where tricky concepts like ethnic diversity and political correctness and sexual equality had never taken root, and gay rights were a misty fantasy. By any number of modern standards it was an awful place, and that was probably why so many of the English wanted to move there.
But, like the previous novels, it’s also funny. The idea that an independent Scotland is run by a terrifying woman known as “Big Mo” is both amusing and strangely plausible. And the characters are much given to wry observations on their own predicaments:
Ben nodded. “Okay. We’re going to check out of here, then one of us will go with you while you check out of your hotel, then we’re going to find somewhere else to stay.”
“You’re making all this up as you go along, aren’t you?” Elsie said.
“It’s what we usually do,” said Ben.
So. If you’ve already read and enjoyed the previous Fractured Europe novels, you must just go straight out and buy this one. (But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?) But if you haven’t read any of these books before, you should probably start at the beginning, with Europe In Autumn.
One final note: the empty alternate Europe occupied by the Community in Fractured Europe has an origin story, “On The Windsor Branch”, previously published only in a now-defunct Polish science-fiction magazine, Fenix (1994), and in a volume of short stories, now long out of print and rare, As The Crow Flies (2004). Hutchinson made an effort to have this volume reissued by crowd-funding it through Unbound, but the book now seems to have vanished from their catalogue.