Review: Countdown City – The Last Policeman, Book 2 / Author: Ben H. Winters / Publisher: Quirk Books / Release Date: July 16th
There are 77 days left until the 6.5 kilometre wide asteroid, Maia, collides with the earth. There is no electricity, supplies are running out and Detective Hank Palace is out of a job. As he prepares for the end, he is approached by a woman from his past, who begs him to help find her missing husband. Despite the impossible odds of finding a man in a world where society has all but collapsed, Hank agrees to try, not realising that his own life may be under threat.
Countdown City picks up a couple of months from where the first book in the trilogy, The Last Policeman, ended. Things have, quite literally, gone to hell in those few weeks. The police force has been all but disbanded, and people are getting by on black market supplies and whatever meagre food and water they have been able to horde in preparation for the coming apocalypse. Religious cults have sprung up, and what remains of the coastguard are fighting a losing battle against the tide of refugees from the impact zone of South East Asia. As with the first book, Winters paints an incredibly realistic, fascinating picture of a society in terminal decline. The first novel showed a fatalistic picture, but at the same time there were threads of hope amidst the darkness. People became "Bucket Listers" who abandoned family and friends to go and spend their final days living out their dreams. Communities banded together, and at least a few businesses managed to stay open, running on black market supplies. Countdown City is a much darker read. As supplies begin to run out and the infrastructure collapses, a much more savage, every-man-for-himself attitude begins to make itself felt, slowly at first, but increasing in severity throughout the novel, until by the end the city has become a very dangerous place to be.
This is all viewed through Hank's eyes as he tries to piece together the puzzle around the case. Hank is not getting paid for this, in fact he refuses payment, and you get the sense that he's carrying out the investigation as a way of keeping himself busy until the inevitable happens. At the same time, he has an unshakable sense of honour and responsibility that keeps pushing him forward, despite the obstacles that impede his progress. The other characters are similarly complex and compelling, from his sister Nico who has fallen in with a group of conspiracy theorists, to his old police colleagues and even the minor characters like a waitress in a coffee house Hank frequents, who, by the end of the book, is only serving cups of warm water.
Countdown City is a fine novel. It's an intelligent, thought-provoking thriller, with a great eye for detail and an engaging plot, set against one of the most original premises of recent years. Ben Winters has shown that pre-apocalyptic fiction can be even more interesting than the standard post-apocalyptic stories, and I honestly cannot wait for the final part of this trilogy.