Seconds to Sunrise
Nico Rosso’s Seconds to Sunrise, the third in his Black Ops: Automatik series, felt very much like a book of two halves. But I don’t mean in that terms of the pagination; I’m talking about the difference in the successful (or not) treatment of the two plot elements, because one worked well and the other… didn’t. A good romantic suspense novel has to work in both areas, and while the suspense plot is fairly effective, the romance is stilted, with a lot of telling rather than showing and a singular lack of chemistry between the two leads.
April Banks’ husband, Mark, was killed during a tour in Afghanistan four years earlier. Utterly devastated, she has gradually re-built herself and her life, even though she is still living quietly in the shadows. She doesn’t have close friends or family, but she has a large support network she has built up through her website foundafter.com, a forum for women who are similarly circumstanced. The site has been a real lifeline for April, so when she discovers it’s been hacked, she feels as though she has been personally violated and exposed – but she isn’t going to give up without a fight. Her own computer skills are a match for the hackers, who have yet to break through her deeply encrypted security protocols. But she fears it’s only a matter of time before whoever is behind the hack breaks through and is able to steal all the personal and financial information belonging to the thousands of forum members.
Former SAS operative James Sant was at a loss when he left the army and did some things he’s not proud of. Joining Automatik offered him a way back into helping people again, and he’s never looked back – even though he is still haunted by the years he spent at the bottom of a bottle when he wasn’t running operations for a former colleague who wasn’t very discriminating about the jobs and clients he took on.
I haven’t read the other books in this series, but that’s not a hindrance, because the story in this one is self-contained, and the author includes enough information about Automatik for the reader to be able to work out that it’s a secret organisation made up of former military and special services operatives who now work to solve problems that nobody else can. They fly under the radar and won’t hestitate to use any means necessary to ensure the success of their missions.
Automatik is aware of what’s happened to April’s website and has quickly taken steps designed to protect her – and it’s just as well, because only days after the hack, she is attacked in the supermarket car park by two hired thugs and saved only by the fact that James and one of his colleagues are keeping an eye on her and are able to act quickly to deal with the attackers and get April away. Even though she’s scared and has no experience of what she’s unwittingly become a part of, she needs to find the people who have done this to her. James wants to get her to safety while Automatik does its job, but she quickly convinces him that her computer skills are necessary if they’re going to track down the hackers. Together they head out to follow the leads April has gathered so far.
As I said at the outset, the action/suspense side of the story is handled well for the most part, and the incorporation of the element of cybercrime gives it a really up-to-the-minute feel. There are some well-written set-pieces; car chases, shoot-outs, a dramatic helicopter escape… and with the end approaching, I was looking forward to finding out why April’s site had been targeted and by whom. The bad guys get caught, and – epilogue. Huh? I thought I’d missed something but no, no explanations. I’d have thought that given the lengths the hackers went to in order to protect themselves, we’d have been told that some major crime/espionage syndicate was responsible and told why they had targeted April’s website specifically. Even if those details are contained in one of the earlier books, or one that’s still to come, it’s a pretty major omission in terms of the plot resolution and it was a big let-down.
Unfortunately, the same is true of the romance, which feels forced and almost as though it’s been tacked on. I was constantly told (rather than shown) that April and James are attracted to each other but I never felt there was any emotional connection between them at all. There’s a lot of back and forth between them, by which I mean that as soon as they find themselves feeling comfortable around each other, one of them will think of something – usually for April, it’s Mark and for James it’s his murky past – and close themselves off, which the other interprets as meaning they can never be together. Even during the book’s single sex scene, April is on/off – she wants James, but then feels it’s wrong… she’s been a widow for four years and hasn’t had a relationship (or sex) since her husband’s death, so I could understand why she would feel nervous. But if she really felt as though she was somehow betraying her husband’s memory – which is what I inferred – then a high-adrenaline, high-stakes situation probably wasn’t the best time to be trying to work out whether she wanted to have sex with someone else or not.
I also had a big problem with the writing style, which may or may not be something that bothers others. One thing I really dislike in a body of writing is having lots and lots of short sentences all running one after the other. It’s fine to do it occasionally for effect, but when it’s the norm, it quickly becomes annoying as it breaks the flow of the words and makes the whole thing feel really choppy. It had a big impact on my reading and broke my concentration frequently. And there were some really odd turns of phrase; one that sticks in my mind is “… the kiss parted”. Surely, that should be “… the kiss ended”. Or “… their lips parted”? Another is “her tumult fell into place again” – what does that even mean? (Of course, I know what is meant, but it’s a very strange phrase.)
The reviews for the previous books in this series have been fairly positive, so perhaps this is a case “it’s not you, it’s me.” But the non-resolution to what is an otherwise intriguing suspense plot and the poorly executed romance make Seconds to Sunrise a book I can’t recommend.