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Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (2013) 212 p.

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At the end of The Last Policeman, Detective Hank Palace is no longer a detective or even a policeman. An asteroid is scheduled to collide with the earth in a matter of months, and the US federal government has nationalised city police departments and shuttered the investigative units of Concord, New Hampshire. In Countdown City, Palace is approached by his childhood babysitter to help find her missing husband, who vanished one night and hasn’t come home. In this pre-apocalyptic world, people take off all the time, but she’s fervent that he never would have abandoned her. Palace knows that it’s a hopeless case and he’s unlikely to ever find the man, but as a sort of private investigator, he takes it up anyway. Why? Because everybody has something they cling to when faced with their imminent extinction, and that’s his: being a cop. Being a detective.

I can’t remember how The Last Policeman ended up on my to-be-read pile – it was one of those books that I add on Goodreads and then it sets there for five years before I get around to it – but I was surprised to find that its sequel, Countdown City, won the Philip K. Dick Award. It deserved to. There’s a messier central mystery than The Last Policeman, including an undeserved deus ex machina moment, and I maintain that it would fit more with the overall vibe of the series if Palace’s mysteries ultimately went frustratingly unresolved or turned out to be as unremarkably simple as they first appear (a suicide, a guy just leaving his wife to go have an affair). But the police procedural is really just a structure Winters uses to house the actual appeal of this series: a fascinating examination of a slow-motion apocalypse, of how people cope with knowledge of their impending destruction, and how the human infrastructure of the state responds to what Palace calls “the current environment.”

I started and finished this book on the same day; I can’t remember any time I’ve done that which didn’t involve an intercontinental flight. Granted, this day did involve spending two hours lying on a beach, but even later that evening I was more inclined to continue reading than do anything else. Countdown City holds your attention. That’s a testament to how well Winters captures the page-turning essence of a detective thriller (not his typical genre, I understand) but also a testament to what a good book it is and what a good concept it is. The countdown of the title feels very real: not in the specific rattling off of days or the flipping of a calendar, but rather in the gradual decay of the threads of civilisation; the sense that the world we know is slipping away bit by bit and the clock can never be turned back again. The Concord we see in The Last Policeman is one which is still in shock; still a recognisably functioning society, even if hyperinflation is kicking in and people are starting to “go Bucket List” and petrol’s running out. By the beginning of Countdown City, electricity is gone in New Hampshire, the newspapers have stopped printing, and the economy is down to bartering basics; there’s still law and order, but of a kind which is edging towards a police state, and by the end of the novel things have taken a considerable turn for the worse. Given that it’s the entire premise of the series, if Winters had botched this end-of-days atmosphere of anxiety, bleakness and barely constrained hysteria, it would have been a serious problem. But he carries it off perfectly. A great series, and I’m very much looking forward to finishing it off with the final book, World of Trouble.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (2019) 687 p.

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Like its predecessor was and like its successor will be, The Secret Commonwealth is a difficult book to judge because of the weight of expectation it carries. Nobody is reading these books because they plucked them off the shelf at random; people are reading them because they read and loved His Dark Materials ten or twenty years ago and are eager to return to that world. It means these books have to stand up to a more robust assessment than they would otherwise, but I don’t think that’s unfair.

The Secret Commonwealth, unlike La Belle Sauvage, takes place not before the original trilogy but after it. Lyra is now twenty years old, studying at a college in her beloved Oxford – which is of course Pullman’s beloved Oxford, and I tell you what, he managed to make that love shine through in the original trilogy without sounding as though he was drafting a route for a walking tour. Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, as a result of the events in The Amber Spyglass, has the ability to travel where he pleases without being proximally tethered to his human. This may or may not also be the cause of the emotional rift between the two; one of the things I didn’t twig as a kid but which I enjoy as an adult reader is the fact that, since a daemon represents a person’s own soul, the conversations they have with them are really the equivalent of a person’s internal dialogue, and Lyra and Pan coming to hate each other is a symptom of her own depression. (Later, the actions of another character’s daemon are clearly an expression of her own tragically repressed homosexuality). While out wandering the rooftops and gardens of Oxford one night, Pan witnesses a murder, kicking off a chain of events which sends both of them away on long, separate journeys.

This book is better than La Belle Sauvage. That’s a start. What it has in common with La Belle Sauvage is that Pullman has either lost the ability to kill his darlings or is now old and successful enough that his editors no longer exercise a firm pen. (See also: J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc.) Northern Lights is an epic in miniature, each chapter moving the story dramatically forward, each introducing some interesting new concept or event or set of characters; by page 200 of Northern Lights, Lyra is standing in the snow in Norway, meeting Iorek Byrnison. By page 200 of The Secret Commonwealth, in comparison, everybody is still faffing about in Oxford doing the sort of amateur cloak and dagger stuff Pullman should have got out of his system with the Sally Lockhart books.

Aside from pacing, another issue it shares with La Belle Sauvage is that it feels rather hum-drum. The story of Northern Lights, while it happened to be focusing on Britain and the Arctic, always suggested that Lyra’s whole world was a fantastic map of magic and adventure; if somebody in the first chapter can passingly refer to “the bears” up north in a way which makes it clear they’re sentient, what else might be beyond the horizon, taken for granted by people who live in a world where even southern England is brimming with fantasy? The answer, in this new trilogy, is “not much.” There’s promise at the start, as Lyra reads second-hand in the murdered man’s journal about a mysterious desert in central Asia, a hidden palace containing some unknown treasure guarded by enigmatic sentries without daemons; encouraging stuff! But then she and Pan and Malcolm set off on separate journeys across a Europe which – aside from an encounter with a pair of cursed elemental beings on an atmospheric evening in Prague – does not feel very different from the real Europe. This is not helped by the fact that Pullman inexplicably felt the need to include a ripped-from-the-headlines Mediterranean refugee boat crisis.

Did I enjoy The Secret Commonwealth more than most fantasy? Yes, though I still found my attention wandering quite often. Will I read the final book in the trilogy? Of course. But neither it nor La Belle Sauvage come anywhere close to living up to the legacy of His Dark Materials. Possibly that was inevitable, but it’s a shame nonetheless.

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November 2019