Countdown City: 77 days and counting

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCountdown City by Ben Winters fantasy book reviewsCountdown City by Ben H. Winters

Countdown City is Ben H. Winters’s second book in the pre-apocalyptic trilogy that began with The Last Policeman. Hank Palace is no longer a cop in Concord, New Hampshire; police functions have been nationalized, but he still wants to help people and try to maintain order in the two and a half months that remain before Maia, a fifteen-kilometer-wide asteroid, hits the earth.

Hank’s old babysitter asks him to find her husband who disappeared a few days earlier. Missing persons are almost impossible to locate; many people are “going Bucket List,” leaving their lives to do things they’ve always wanted to do before the end comes. Others are joining doomsday cults. There is no internet, phone service or e-mail and in fact most of New Hampshire is now without electricity. The enhanced federal police presence seems to do nothing except be a presence, highly visible in their cop cars but not bothering to prevent or investigate crimes. Martha, the babysitter, insists that her husband Brett Cavatone would never leave her, and tells Hank that Brett has to come back “for his salvation.”

Hank has a support network with two other former cops. Culverson is his police rabbi, who mentored him and taught him the ropes, and McGully is a colleague. The three of them meet regularly at a local diner. As Hank delves into the investigation, Brett emerges as a more and more interesting character. He is a man with a strong moral compass and powerful charisma. Martha was sure Brett would never cheat on her, but Hank uncovers a mystery woman in Brett’s life, and it seems she might have been wrong. When he meets the other woman, though, he discovers she is only the tip of the iceberg that is Brett’s personal end-of-days plan.

From the scavenger who owns the contents of an entire Office Depot store (including precious bottled water) to the utopian experiment on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, Hank meets folks with a variety of schemes to hold the terrible truth at bay.

After a few minutes of walking, the noise of the drums and the singing have faded, and we are wandering through the campus, passing nondescript low-slung brick academic buildings —  Geology Department, Kinesiology, Mathematics. After ten minutes or so we come out onto a plaza where there’s just a single drummer, tapping away all on his own, wearing sweatpants and a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. The chiseled brick cornerstone says PERFORMING ARTS, and a sandwich board is propped up at the base of the wide steps, between the columns, advertising a lecture: “The Asteroid as Metaphor: Collision, Chaos and Perceptions of Doom.”

Hank’s own capacity for denial is stripped away in this book, first by his rebellious sister Nico but more thoroughly by what he discovers when he pursues Brett.

I lie in the rutted crater that was my home and consider my choices: calling my sister a fool for pursuing a one-in-a-million chance at survival while I’m the one who’s accepted a hundred percent chance of death.

The mystery of Brett’s disappearance is the primary story here, but, this much closer to the impact date, the effects of the catastrophe play a big role in this book. Hank has to work harder to maintain the commitment and basic decency that makes him a hero in a world without them. He is at odds with Nico, who has, in Hank’s opinion, a crackpot scheme to save the world, but that’s what Hank is trying to do, too, just on a smaller scale, one life at a time.

Because the premise is so interesting and the main character is so engaging, it is easy to overlook Winters’s prose. He has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, managing to evoke the sense of desperation people are feeling in few words, and a good ear for the right word at the right time. When Hank studies a photograph of Brett, taken by Marta on a fishing trip, he thinks that Brett and the big-mouth bass have the same “skeptical and somber expression.” “Sober” would have been equally accurate there, but would not carry the hint of sadness that “somber” does, the sadness that pervades the book.

I am not hopeful that the asteroid Maia will suddenly change course in the third book, or that Nico’s group will succeed, so it seems strange to say that these books leave me feeling optimistic, but they do. The reason for that is Hank and his small circle of friends, who continue, in the face of terrible odds, to try to do the right thing.

~Marion Deeds


“The Last Policeman” and “Countdown City”The Last Policeman and Countdown CityThe Last Policeman and Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

Because I read Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman and Countdown City over the course of a day and a half, I’m going to review them together rather than singly. Though really, the fact that I read them both in that time period is probably all you need to know about what I thought of them.

The two novels are set in Concord, New Hampshire, and center on newly-made detective Hank Palace as he tries to solve a possible murder/insurance fraud in the first novel and a missing persons case in the second. Oh yeah, and there’s also the little matter of the imminent collapse of human society thanks to the extinction-level asteroid coming Earth’s way in six months in The Last Policeman and in only 77 days in Countdown City.

Typically, these sorts of stories give us a somewhat world-weary detective facing multiple obstacles in order to get to the truth and restore at least a semblance of order on the (possibly very small) world. Here, though, there will be no restoration of world order, as the world is about to end. And the “obstacles” aren’t simply a corrupt or slow bureaucracy, but an entire society that has pretty much given up: people are leaving their jobs in droves, “going bucket” to realize dreams they once had; communication lines are dying off as employees disappear and people stop paying bills; even McDonald’s has shut down. Our first-person narrator Hank describes the current situation this way:

There are differences in behavior, but they are on the margins. The main difference, from a law-enforcement perspective, is more atmospheric. . The mood here in town is that of the child who isn’t in trouble yet, but knows he’s going to be. He’s up in his room, waiting. “Just wait till your father gets home.” He’s sullen and snappish, he’s on edge. Confused, sad, trembling against the knowledge of what’s coming next, and right on the edge of violence, not angry but anxious in a way that can easily shade into anger.

As for the authorities, the police force is down to less than a skeletal staff (though they and the government are the only ones still able to have cars or gas); the crime lab is nearly non-existent; and anyway, who cares whether someone commits a crime at this point? As for world-weary, well, Hank is young, a relative innocent in the ways of the normal world, let alone this one, and he’s tired of “People hiding behind the asteroid, like it’s an excuse for poor conduct, for miserable and desperate and selfish behavior.”

And there is a good amount of that sort of behavior going on as Hank tries against all odds to solve the murder of Peter Fell, insurance investigator found with a belt wrapped around his neck in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom, though everyone else simply dismisses him as the typical “hangar” — the suicide method of choice in Concord (other regions have their own favorite methods).

Hank’s desire to do a job well contrasts the wry fatalism that runs throughout most of the novel, either in the background (references to end-of-the-world songs playing) or in the foreground via dialog:

I used to want to be a cop.

Hey, it’s never too late.

Well, it is though.

In The Last Policeman, the asteroid and the reactions to it mostly plays out in this fatalism: sometimes dry, sometimes sad, occasionally but rarely violent. I really liked the fact that Winter doesn’t dwell on the asteroid itself, whose discovery, approach and impending results are only gradually and minimally revealed. This is a quiet pre-apocalyptic novel, not a bang-bang Road Warrior/The Road sort of post-apocalyptic one.

The mystery is well plotted and interesting in its own right, but really what makes this book (both books) so compelling is the rich pre-apocalyptic atmosphere and Hank’s characterization, along with other characters that come in and out of the mix — his somewhat oddball sister, who is mixed up with conspiracy theorists; Dr. Fenton, the local coroner who also believes in a job done well regardless of context; Sgt. Culverson, a mentor figure for Hank; and a host of others large and small.

By the time of Countdown City, the more imminent end has turned Concord much more dangerous as people begin to hoard food, loot, use guns to defend themselves or take from others, and so on. Hank is no longer on the force by this time, so as he looks for the missing husband of a childhood friend, his difficulties are exponentially higher, especially as he no longer has vehicle access and has to bike/walk everywhere. Countdown City is a darker, grimmer, more violent work, but still with lots of the wry gallows humor of the first book.

I only had a few minor, very minor, complaints. One is we have a few too many shootout/helicopter-at-the-last-minute moments, though really there aren’t all that many. It’s just that the focus on people and relationships is so quietly good that those moments are a bit jarring, though they do make perfect sense in the context of the setting (save for that damn helicopter arrival). Another is that the missing husband character is played a bit too goody-goody with the “He’s just Brett” phrase used a bit too freely. But as I mentioned, these were minor complaints. I was captivated by both setting and character in both, opening up Countdown City on my Kindle immediately upon finishing The Last Policeman. I can’t wait for the concluding book coming sometime this year. Highly recommended.

~Bill Capossere


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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6 comments

  1. I think I will like this!!

  2. Marion /

    I’m a little worried that the third book will pivot toward the traditional “apocalypse” tropes with even more draconian government measures, secret bases, etc, but Winters could even pull that off. I think these books could be used in a sociology class to good effect.

  3. Hello Bill,
    thanks a lot for the review of both books. Last year I got a digital copy of “The Last Policeman” for free. So far I did not find time to read it.
    I read your review with great interest and I like it a lot that you reviewed both books at once. You convinced me to buy a digital copy of “Countdown City” after reading your review. Furthermore “The Last Policeman” made it to my 2014 to read list.

    Now you know that you did something good for the author and for at least one reader. Again thank you.

  4. Sequel alert!

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