Rudi is an excellent chef with a stubborn streak he can’t hide. When he becomes a Coureur – a member of Europe’s clandestine postal and people trafficking service – life becomes more interesting than a Friday night cooking for Hungarian mobsters. But Rudi has no idea what secrets he’s carrying – or who will kill to protect them.
This is that oddity: a book I couldn’t put down even though I couldn’t tell you what I liked so much while I was reading it.
There’s so many ways this is not my sort of book: practically no female characters, for a start, and them fleeting; no clear plot for the longest time, just episodes without an obvious broader arc; loose ends left dangling; and a series of WTF abrupt twists in the second half, that introduce further world building rather than really making use of what’s gone before – although new perspectives do make the Coureurs (even) more ominous.
And it’s a spy novel, for crying out loud, peopled with men who are less mysterious than they’d like to be and occasional Eastern European mobsters (although in spite of being chilling hooligans, the Hungarians still somehow exude a certain rough charm). In fact, short of hideous interludes of isms (which it lacks, I hasten to add), this is more or less everything I usually avoid in a book.
For quite some time, I couldn’t even have told you why I liked Rudi, the narrator: he doesn’t have a forceful personality so much as dogged perseverance or gritty obstinacy. It’s unclear why he agrees to join the Coureurs when he seems to enjoy being a chef. It’s even less clear why he stays, although the money has to be good. He’s as opaque as everything else.
But craftily interwoven through all this are some fascinating ideas (however close to the bone they now cut given current political climate) and a wealth of charm. By the end, I did know why I liked Rudi: I like Rudi because he lets old ladies beat him up in order to learn from them. I like Rudi because he’s an idealist under the pragmatism. I like Rudi because most of his decisions – even after those abrupt last-act twists – are about helping others.
But when we do eventually reach the crux of the novel, we lose Rudi as our narrator: one last betrayal in a demonstrably unreliable world. The last act is narrated by one rapidly-discarded supporting character after another, to keep the truth from the reader and artificially spin out the intrigue. Oh yes, I should hate this book.
But – and turn away now if you want to remain unspoiled – it turns out to be about parallel worlds and cartomancers. HALLO. Creating a fictional world out of deliberately inaccurate maps and sheer force of belief is my sort of magic. Having your protagonist make the logical leap from hearing a border is heavily guarded to assuming that the powers that be are trying to keep people in – not out – struck an unexpected chord that made my recently much-bruised heart leap for joy. Rudi doesn’t want to flee the complications of fractured Europe; he wants to rescue people from the shadowy Community.
His effortless tradecraft by the end of the novel is almost unrecognisable from the naive young chef of the start – even having travelled most of that road with him – so there’s shades of Neo’s journey from the Matrix here too, although thankfully a lot less mumbo-jumbo (maybe that’s why I got to the end and realised I’d lost my heart; Mr Hutchinson better take better care of it than the Wachowskis did).
While I do wonder whether this would have worked better for me narrated in flashbacks with more context up front – and I do hope female characters get page time in the sequel (I’d also like to see more of Seth) – and in spite of being honestly unsure where this narrative is going, I’m along for the ride. Wherever the Line may take me.