Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip
Making Wolf by Tade Thompson
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
This year the administrators of the Man Booker have decided to produce a longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. Since 2005 the Prize has been awarded every two years to an author’s body of work. So making the Prize annual and following the same pattern as the “English-speaking” Man Booker, i.e. longlist, followed by a shortlist one month later, followed by an award for best novel, is a great development. Highlighting translated works from non-English speaking countries is important in a world where diversity is used by politicians as a pejorative rather than something to be embraced.
Inspired by David Hebblethwaite, an excellent critic who has always promoted translated works and who is part of a shadow panel to judge the longlist, I’ve decided to read the shortlist when it’s announced mid April. Because rather than just carp on about diversity – whether it’s on this blog or The Writer and the Critic podcast – it might actually be worth reading translated works from other cultures.
The longlist is here.
I know some of you haven’t read Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn and while I’m not angry I am disappointed. I told you how good it was, I made it clear both here and on Strange Horizons that it was one of my top books of 2015 and you’ve ignored my advice. You’ve either allowed the book to sit on your “to be read pile”, promising you’ll get to it though never actually cracking open the covers or you haven’t bothered to purchase the novel at all because you know once you read it all the hype will have proven to be false and frankly who wants to endure that sort of anti-climax. You’re excuses are hollow, meaningless.
Consequently, there’s really no point you reading my thoughts about the sequel, Europe in Midnight, unless you’ve read the first book. In fact I’d rather you went elsewhere, unless, of course you heeded my advice and have read Europe in Autumn and are wondering whether the sequel is as good. The answer to which is that it’s very good indeed, but not as brilliant as Europe in Autumn. I recommend you read the sequel and then check out my thoughts. Because spoilers.
What was wonderful about Europe in Autumn, aside from the great character work, the deliberate avoidance of exposition and the sharp dialogue (oh how I loved the dialogue) was the way the novel took an abrupt left turn about two-thirds of the way through. How a throwaway story about a family of mapmakers and their penchant for cartographical anomalies becomes the bedrock of the entire novel. Because if there’s nothing I like more it’s when an author genuinely surprises me without resorting to cheap tricks (unreliable narrators and such) or nonsensical twists.
Obviously, Hutchinson couldn’t pull the same trick twice with the sequel, Europe in Midnight. And while that might speak to the diminishing returns inherent in a multi-volume series or trilogy I was fascinated to see how Hutchinson would approach the matter. With the revelation of a pocket universe co-existing alongside a near future Europe, would Hutchinson take a more linear, straight forward approach to the story-telling – further detail Rudi’s investigation of the world created by the Whitton-Whytes – or would he find another way to surprise the reader?
On reflection I should have known that Hutchinson wasn’t going to take the easy option. Europe at Midnight is a genuine sequel to Europe in Autumn (it’s not a companion piece has some have described it) but without featuring any of the main characters (Rudi specifically) from the first book. I kept thinking that at some point our two protagonists from Europe in Midnight would meet with Rudi and his band of enterprising rebels. But as the novel progressed this expectation faded until it became clear that Rudi wouldn’t feature at all. And just as I was (virtually) turning the last couple of pages, there he was, older and wiser (spoilers).
But it’s more than introducing a new cast of characters. Hutchinson also splits the narrative between two protagonists – Rupert (not his real name) a lecturer at a very strange University and Jim, an intelligence agent who has been tasked to investigate the Community, the name for the residents of Whitton-Whytes pocket Universe – whose lives seems totally disconnected until a third of the way through when what should have been obvious becomes clear. (Hutchinson is fantastic at hiding plot twists or revelations in plain sight). But even better than two separate narrative threads (because we’ve seen that done hundreds of times before), each chapter begins like the start of a new story. So while, Chapter 2 has Jim introduced to the concept of the Community, when we return to Jim in Chapter 4 he’s not only ensconced in the investigation, but a good chunk of time has passed. And this is a regular phenomena of the novel. Between each chapter, whether it’s Rupert or Jim’s story, Hutchinson pushes the narrative weeks, months and sometimes years in advance. It means that reader is constantly on shifting ground, never sure what to expect when starting a new chapter.
So Hutchinson’s surprise tactics are threefold. Feature new characters – with barely a reference to the cast of the previous novel. Don’t make it clear from the outset how these new characters are connected. And start each chapter by skipping weeks or months in advance, forcing the reader to re-acclimatize with the narrative, figuring out what’s happened between the turning of one page to the next. It’s exciting stuff. And some of it, like the episode where Rupert and a nefarious mix of Community agents, Couriers and possible Neo Nazis are wading through the sewers, covered in shit, is laugh out loud funny.
So the surprise factor is there. And so is the pacing, the paper-cut sharp dialogue and the addictive plot, which wends its way between a University hidden in a pocket Universe where bad things have and are happening, a Europe still fractured by the emergence of hundreds of polities and nation states and the growing influence of the Community, God’s gift to English virtues and the most boring place in the world.
But it’s not a perfect novel. I was less interested in Rupert and Jim as characters, unlike Rudi who I thought had a fascinating arc as he improvised his way through an ever-changing landscape and situation, Rupert and Jim are a little more reactive, passive. That’s not to say that they don’t do stuff and Rupert shows a pragmatic and violent side to his personality when pushed, but neither has Rudi’s depth. The other issue is Hutchinson’s treatment of women. In comparison to Europe in Autumn which barely featured a female character, Europe in Midnight is almost brimming with the opposite sex. The problem is that these sympathetic female characters, whether it’s Adele Bevan (an expert in all things Community) or the enigmatic Araminta Delahunty (who Rupert meets on Campus), all die horribly and violently. So while Hutchinson has no problem writing sympathetic, well-rounded and interesting female characters, he struggles to keep them alive.
In spite of these issues I still got a great deal of enjoyment from reading Europe in Midnight. Hutchinson keeps things fresh and vibrant by never sitting still, by considering a different angle, a new perspective, by avoiding the boring bits and most of all never dumbing things down for the audience. I cannot wait for Book Three.
This week I also read Kingfisher by Patricia A. McKillip. Although she’s been writing since the early 70s and has published up to 30 novels, this is my first taste of her work. I’ll be discussing this standalone novel on the next episode of the Coode Street Roundtable. It’s not a coincidence that I described this as my first taste of McKillip’s work. There were passages in this novel that literally made my stomach rumble. But you’ll either have to read the book, listen to the podcast or, preferably, do both, to understand why.
I also read Making Wolf by Tade Thompson which, if all going well, I’ll be reviewing for a place other than this blog. So for now I’ll keep my thoughts to myself other than to say that the novel is very good indeed. It’s a crime novel and the one “speculative” element is that Thompson invents his own country in West Africa rather than set it in Nigeria or Benin (I’m assuming Alcacia is squeezed somewhere between the two). This created place is an interesting aspect of the novel, especially the motivation to invent a country / world for non-fantastical reasons (if that makes sense). It’s something I’ll explore in this review to be published (I hope) elsewhere. But in the meantime I highly recommend the novel which, recently, walked home with the Kitschie Award for début novel (the Golden Tentacle).