Review – Countdown to Zero Hour (Black Ops: Automatik #1) by Nico Rosso

Reviewed by: Marlene

I picked this up because I usually like Nico Rosso’s work, especially his contributions to The Ether Chronicles (see review at Library Journal) and his Demon Rock series, reviewed at Reading Reality (start with Heavy Metal Heart reviewed here)

However, I found Countdown to Zero Hour to be a bit slow going. The setup of the story seemed to take forever, while the action, fast and furious as it was, seemed to be over in a heartbeat. And oddly enough, even though the settings of The Ether Chronicles and Demon Rock are both intentionally somewhat otherworldly, Countdown to Zero Hour, while firmly set in contemporary reality, didn’t feel nearly as real.

And that’s really weird.

Two recent tropes that I am not terribly fond of, to put it mildly, are the gajillionaire romances and the gangster romances. While in this book all the gajillionaires are Russian mobsters, and the hero is an undercover cop (sort of) it still has the feel of one of those gangster romances. Hayley believes that Art is a member of the Russian mob, until he finally tells her different. And she falls for him before she knows the truth about him. She just falls harder after.

The whole story takes place at a high-echelon mob meeting, where Chef Hayley has been strong-armed into cooking for the crew and Art is waiting for all the big bosses to gather so that his organization can bring down the entire gang. A lot of the story is about the deadly power-playing among all the bodyguards of all the various bosses, and the dick-waving and dick-measuring just gets old. It feels like that is what would happen, but I got tired of it, especially since it never went anywhere.

I should say something about the characters. Hayley is a down-on-her-luck chef who is trying to recoup her diminished fortunes by running a steam cart outside of a Russian nightclub selling traditional food from recipes she learned from her family. She knows it’s dangerous, that she is at the edge of mob territory, but she’s desperate. One of the things that kept bothering me is that we never get a clear picture of why she’s desperate. Her ex did something that either took or cost her the money she saved to start her own restaurant, but we never quite get the details.

And then Art notices both her and her cart, and falls for her food first and her second. She’s attracted to him but rightfully wary. And when he introduces her and her food to his mob boss, she’s scared but still attracted. Then he strong-arms her into cooking for this remote meet, and she should keep away. But of course she doesn’t.

While I found the attraction plausible (but weird), it’s the setup that didn’t click for me.

Art and his backstory also didn’t quite gel for me. Or the combination of his backstory and his infatuation with Hayley. Unlike the usual pattern for first books in a series, we don’t see the setup of Automatik, the shadowy undercover organization that Art works for. They seem to be a cross between special forces operatives, spies and cops, but who they really are and how they end up doing what they are doing is as mysterious at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.

While I can wrap my mind around the idea that Art is in this particular operation to get revenge on the men who killed his father, it felt wrong that he reveals everything about himself and his undercover operation to Hayley after just a few days. All those months and years of undercover discipline, and he blows it all in a week because he wants her to think better of him than she does.

The action in the final quarter of the book was fast, furious and gripping. Once the operation to take down the cartel kicks into gear, it gears up all over the place. There are explosions, gunshots, attempted kidnappings and desperate escapes, ending with a spectacular desert car chase. The action was non-stop and edge of the seat. I just wish the rest of the book had been half as entertaining.

I give Countdown to Zero Hour a C+

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