Countdown, by Michelle Maddox (Shomi, 2008)

Kira has been eking out a passable existence as a thief and pickpocket ever since the brutal murder of her family when she was in her teens. Occasionally using her psychic ability to “read” people, she picks her targets carefully. Unfortunately, she’s finally crossed the wrong person. She wakes up in a dark room, chained, with an infamous mass murderer likewise secured. Kira and her unexpected companion are then given sixty seconds to use the provided keys to free themselves, and escape the room, as a deadly game called The Countdown begins.

Now Kira and Rogan are linked by fate and technology, implants in their heads designed to kill them if they get more then ninety feet apart from one another. They have to make their way through a series of ever-deadlier levels in The Countdown, performing bizarre tasks and cheating death time and again, forced to work together despite an inherent lack of trust or understanding between them. As they survive, and are plunged deeper into The Countdown, closer to the ultimate end, they discover a number of hidden truths, about themselves, about each other, and about the true nature of the deadly game they’re playing against their will. And in the process, they grow closer as a team… and a couple. But The Countdown demands blood and sacrifice. Can they see their way through to the end of Level Six, and escape their fates, or will they perish for the pleasure of a rich, decadent audience and a soulless manipulator?

Countdown, part of Dorchester’s Shomi line of speculative romance fiction, is a post-apocalyptic romantic thriller clearly inspired by Stephen King’s The Running Man and The Most Dangerous Game. It’s an odd story, fast-paced and quick-moving, that still manages to meander along the way as the author throws one surprise twist after another into the mix. It gets to a point where neither the characters nor the reader can be entirely certain what’s true and what’s false, and no one’s sure just what’s going to happen next. Except for the times when it’s almost painfully obvious what sort of twist is about to present itself. (He’s a murderer! No, he’s not. He killed her family! No, he didn’t. He’s guilty! He’s innocent! He’s really… and the bad guy is really… but wait, there’s more!) The basic plot — two people are forced to work together to survive an escalating series of deathtraps while a jaded audience cheers for their blood — is simple enough, but the tension and suspense is further augmented by the occasionally ridiculous number of surprises tossed in.

However, all of that can’t quite overshadow the romantic thread which wraps around the two protagonists as they bond through shared near-death experiences. Kira and Rogan discover an almost instant attraction to one another, despite all of the initial distrust and the lies they’re fed about one another throughout the course of the story, and it’s interesting to watch them become closer emotionally in such a short time frame. I do have to question the pacing in some ways, and the timing of the inevitable love scene, given the circumstances, is hard to swallow. They’re in the middle of a game demanding their death, and they fall into the first soft bed that’s presented, in what even the characters understand to be a setup, and then they’re surprised later on when it really does turn out to be part of the game?

There’s a lot of potential here, especially in the portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Earth that’s down to half of its pre-plague population, a world that just doesn’t have the manpower or energy to rebuild like it should, where the people dream of leaving Earth for a newer, happier, more prosperous world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely ring true. We see all sorts of somewhat advanced technology, psychic powers are apparently commonplace among women, and it’s clear that there’s a severe class distinction between the haves and the have-nots, and yet… it just doesn’t seem to work as well as it should for me. The pieces are there, and the potential, but it’s not a world I can wrap my mind around, which is a pity because I really wanted to envision it.

Ultimately, I’d have to say that Countdown is competent and enjoyable, but in a direct-to-video sci-fi action movie would be. It’s a good way to pass some time, but it only works if you don’t put too much thought into just how it’s put together. The Shomi line has been pretty hit or miss for me, and Countdown is a prime example of how the executions don’t always live up to the conceptual potential. This is a shame, because as Michelle Maddox, the author has turned out some rather nice humorous romantic fantasies in the past, and I was really looking forward to seeing how she tackled science fiction/thriller. Perhaps I’m just not the right audience; romance readers might get a real kick out of this book, but it lacks a certain something when looked at from the SF reader’s point of view. Your mileage may vary.

Originally reviewed for SF Site, 2009

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