I love Ruth Wind. You should’ve seen me doing the Snoopy Dance when I found out she was returning to writing romance. Well, not that the Silhouette Bombshell line is a conventional romance line, but WOO HOO asskicking babes with strong romantic interests.
But this book? It’s good, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoy how the heroine, Kim Valenti, is actually competent for once, unlike the usual bumbling, wouldn’t-hurt-a-flea morons who litter the landscape of romantic suspense, blowing your mind with another retarded-yet-cutesy antic (like throwing the gun at the bad guy) when you least want or expect it—and when I say “blowing your mind,” I don’t mean in a good way, I mean the way a landmine rips the limbs off another innocent, unsuspecting Cambodian child.
Yeah, secret agent heroines: far too many of them are brain-dead weenies. But that’s a rant Mrs. Giggles has covered in detail. Kim Valenti: NOT a brain-dead weenie, which is good. This chica knows how to get the job done.
But the book still failed to engage me. I put it down again and again, and I never felt any urgency to pick it up again. I didn’t really care what happened to Kim or her OMGHOT boytoy Lex; in fact, I thought it’d be much more interesting to see the bad guys win just to shake it up.
Kim Valenti is a codebreaker for the National Security Agency and a graduate of the l33t-as-fuck Athena Academy, which, from what I gathered in the book, is an Academy for Budding Superwomen, complete with its own shadowy intelligence branch and assorted sources of classified information. Kim is trying to trying to crack encrypted e-mails from some Middle Eastern terrorists, and thanks to some leads from the academy, she’s finally figured out the target: a location in Chicago. Unfortunately, she can’t find anybody who will listen to her, not even the hot shot bomb squad agent who helped her with a previous case, a hot piece of ass named Lex Tanner.
So acting on a hunch, she goes to a television station in Chicago, only to get trapped in a Very Sticky Situation: the station is overrun by terrorists and all the staff within held hostage. To complicate things, Kim finds out that the primary target isn’t the station. The station is a distraction, a red herring. The terrorists are after much bigger game than a mere TV station.
So being the good little l33t-as-fuck agent that she is, Kim kicks, punches, claws and leaps her way out of the station and heads over to FBI headquarters to kidnap herself a fine piece of bomb squad ass to help her defuse the bomb.
More asskicking ensues, and Kim and Lex save the day. But alas and alack, the two terrorists responsible for masterminding the attack manage to escape from the TV station, so that means more shenanigans abound before Kim and Lex have to put away their chaussures pour donner des coups de pied sur les derrieres.
There are a lot of things I like about the two main characters. Kim, like I said before, is supremely competent at her job. When I say she kicks ass, I mean it: SHE KICKS FUCKING ASS. And she gets her shit tore up by the bad guys, too—she’s good, but she’s not invincible. The sight of a heroine who is capable of doing all this without being missish or squeamish or nice about the whole thing is refreshing, especially in Romancelandia, where the female population is often distressingly dim and helpless. Kim is also commitment-shy and unabashed about enjoying sex for its own sake in a fairly realistic way, which, again, is distressingly rare in Romancelandia and its surfeit of frigid, insecure women who dedicate their lives to their work but don’t have two brain cells to rub together (ref. Zachary, Amanda).
But something about her still rings false. Her angst about her dead brother, beheaded by Iraqi insurgents, for example, feels tacked on. The grief doesn’t quite have enough bite to it. It’s hard for me to pinpoint other things about her that struck false notes, but ultimately, I think that much as I liked her, she just wasn’t particularly interesting to me. The entire book immersed me in her point of view, but I closed it feeling no closer to the character than when I’d started.
Lex is also a rather unusual hero. I really like how he isn’t portrayed as conventionally handsome: he’s skinny and he has a big nose. He’s also willing to let Kim do her job, and holy Christ I’m so happy to see a smart, assertive hero not be all shouty-shouty and “HERE LET ME SAVE THE DAY LITTLE GIRL” all over the heroine.
But here’s something interesting I discovered about myself: I couldn’t settle on an ethnicity for Lex, and I found it discomfiting. When Kim compares his lips to Denzel Washington’s and notes his dark skin, I immediately assumed he’s black, and I was all “Woo hoo!” because hot black men are sorely lacking in Romancelandia. Then later on, there are mentions of his piercing blue eyes and Italian roots, which muddled the picture for me, so I started thinking of him as an olive-skinned white dude. And this wrenching change in direction? Bugged me. Here I was with my happy picture of Hot Skinny Black Guy in my head, and now waitminnit, he’s Hot Skinny White Guy? But wait, maybe he’s a black guy with blue eyes, because hey, Vanessa Williams has blue eyes, but gaaah I don’t want to have to switch my mental picture AGAIN.
Yes, I’m shallow. I want to have a clear picture of the hero and his hotness, and I don’t want that picture to change drastically partway. This quirk is mine alone, and no fault of Ruth Wind’s.
The growing emotional ties and sexual tension between Kim and Lex felt almost as tacked on as Kim’s grief for her brother, and as for the sex itself… well, there was a lot of build up to it, but when it finally happened, I didn’t sit back with a happy sigh, I raised my eyebrows and thought “That’s IT? What the hell?” The sexy-sexy in this book: It talked the talk, but it couldn’t walk the walk.
The suspense storyline also didn’t grab me. The suspense wasn’t particularly suspenseful, and thinking back on it, I think part of the problem was the pacing, which, despite the fight scenes, was pretty sedate. There were also very few surprises, no clever twists that had me go “Naw, no fucking WAY!” to keep me turning the pages. And frankly, I wanted more details. I wanted more about the NSA and how it worked, I wanted to know more about code-breaking and how it’s done, I wanted to know how common it was for codebreakers to also be field agents or even if the NSA DID make distinctions between certain types of personnel, I wanted details on different types of bombs and how to defuse them, I wanted the POV of the villains. (To Wind’s credit, though, despite the lack of a villain’s POV, she took care to provide very credible motivation for the terrorists to do what they’re doing.)
In short, I wanted more of everything—including the love story. But a Bombshell can only be so long, and given the type of story it was, I wanted something Robert Ludlum or Frederick Forsythe or even Michael Crichton could offer, only with better characters and better sex. Countdown ended up being neither fish nor foul nor meat, which is too bad because it got so many other things right.