Ruth Wind’s Countdown is a brisk page-turner that I tore through in a couple of hours. The latest in the Athena Force miniseries, it has its flaws, but was also entertaining enough that they didn’t really bother me.
In the attention-grabbing prologue, a bruised and bloody Kim Valenti arrives at FBI headquarters in Chicago late one snowy night. The NSA cryptologist has information that there’s a bomb somewhere in the airport. There’s only one person she can trust to help her find it: FBI bomb squad expert Lex Tanner. With a hostage situation unfolding at a local TV station, he balks at her demand that he accompany her to the airport. So she shoves a gun into his ribs and leaves him no choice but to obey. It’s a good prologue, tantalizing without giving away the whole story.
Chapter One begins a day earlier, with Kim working to decrypt a series of emails from the terrorist network Q’rajn. The NSA intercepted numerous messages from the group over the last few weeks that seem suspicious, and a spike in email activity over the last few days in particular seems to indicate something big is in the works. With the presidential election set to take place in a month, there’s reason to suspect the terrorists might try to do something to affect the balloting. In her search for answers, Kim takes advantage of Oracle, a super-secret computer system developed long before Homeland Security to share information among the governmental agencies.
What she learns leads her to believe something is about to happen in Chicago. When her CIA contact proves uncooperative, Kim tries to reach Lex Tanner, an FBI agent she worked with on a case a year ago. They’ve never met, though they have corresponded via instant messaging. She knows from his whimsical IM name – Lex Luthor – and his sense of humor that she’d like him if she ever met him. But when he can’t come through for her either, she boards a plane to Chicago herself. The plot moves back to the opening scene (which means we have to read the prologue again almost verbatim, a questionable choice) and then beyond, as the bomb crisis is only the beginning of the story.
This is the tenth book in the Athena Force series, but it stands alone. There are a few brief mentions of the Athena Academy and the president being suspected of corruption, a thread developed in previous books. But this story is self-contained and it’s not necessary to have read any others to understand this one.
It’s very much a pageturner, an exciting read that moves at a propulsive pace. It has a very topical storyline that feels true-to-life, even if the blending of real-life details (war in Iraq, the pre-election bombing in Spain) and fictional ones (the fictitious president and American political situation) feels a little odd at times. As is often the case with this kind of fast read, it’s fairly shallow. Much of the story development is sacrificed to the brisk pace, and it could have been developed more all-around. We learn a smattering of details about Kim and Lex, enough to humanize them but not so much that I’d call them deep or thoroughly explored. Even so, they’re both very cool and likable people. It’s not hard to see why they like each other, because the author makes it so easy for the reader to like them too. I would have enjoyed a little more development of both their characters and their relationship, but they’re still good company for a few hours. Some details of the plot were only sketched in, and the main terrorists, their plans and their motive are all drawn in the broadest of strokes. It’s easy enough to overlook when the action is flowing, but it makes the story less satisfying than it might have been overall if it had been developed more.
This is the kind of book where I knew the flaws were there, but they didn’t bother me all that much because I was sufficiently entertained. The book is unevenly plotted. After very gripping and exciting chapters that deal with the hostage crisis and bomb threat, the story becomes character-driven. Kim and Lex spend time getting to know each other and Kim deals with the aftermath of the bomb scare. The characters pay lip service to the terrorist threat still looming but they certainly don’t seem to pay much attention to it, focusing more on personal matters, like Kim’s relationship with her partner. Some of this seems like unnecessary filler, and it’s easy to forget the terrorists are still a threat until the story finally kicks back into action mode during the final quarter. And yet, even the character and exposition sections really move, written in such a way that the scenes flow well and unfold at a fast clip. Though the plot had stalled, I kept turning the pages quickly, enjoying the characters enough that I didn’t mind.
Countdown isn’t a deep story, but it didn’t really need to be. Its biggest strength is its pacing. The fast pace and likable characters help make it an efficient pageturner and an entertaining read.