Review by Adam Selby-Martin
As with so many titles, it was the cover art to Every Second Counts that drew my attention in as I scrolled through the Kindle listings for the Alternate History genre, and intrigued me enough to click on the title itself and investigate. It’s a fantastic piece of work by illustrator Charlotte Mouncey, simple yet evocative; a rich, royal-blue colour serves as background for a white dove, symbol of peace, that has been brutally murdered by a Nazi dagger; the weapon sticks out of its chest, bright-red blood pooling underneath the corpse providing a stark contrast, the dagger’s hilt lavished with a red and white swastika. The accompanying text is just as well-chosen, sinisterly angled Germanic text that, while stereotypical, sits well with the overall image being portrayed. It’s both distinctive and symbolic, a credit to the artist, and perfectly encapsulates the drama, betrayal and bloodshed to be found within the pages of Every Second Counts.
Once again, an investment on the part of the author has led to me reading a title that I might well have scrolled past without such artwork; and while I know not all authors can afford to do so, it does once again highlight that time and care (even if on the part of the author and not from an external artist or illustrator) will pay dividends through reader engagement.
The cover art drew me in, but I have to admit that the subject matter of the title itself caused me to stop for a moment in consideration. Operation Sealion, or the German invasion of Britain in 1940, is one of the oldest and most well-known tropes in the Alternate History genre, and as a result has been covered both frequently and with a wide variety of skill on the part of the many authors who have written about it. I therefore had to ask myself – was I ready to read yet another take on the scenario, especially given that I’d assumed that any even vaguely fresh angle on it had been done to death some time ago? Well, fortunately for me and my cynicism, author Jack Cole has actually come up with a version of Operation Sealion that I genuinely hadn’t come across previously. The idea of Sealion being delayed in the aftermath of Dunkirk so that an Armistice can be negotiated on the Isle of Wight is definitely an original idea; and although there’s a little bit of butterfly-stomping early on to somehow make Churchill stand down as Prime Minister, presumably because otherwise the scenario couldn’t have taken place, I didn’t find it to be a major distraction because, to be fair to Mr Cole, it isn’t meant to be the primary focus of Every Second Counts.
Instead, that focus is firmly set on antagonist Billy Houston – Great War veteran, working-class member of various pre-war far-right organisations like the British Union of Fascists, a man with a significant chip on his shoulder, and who is now in possession of a complete collection of maps detailing the defences of the British coastlines and further inland. Every minefield, bunker, machine-gun nest and airfield is on those maps, and there’s also blood on Houston’s hands from the senior officer he beat to death to get hold of them. Murder and theft of such vital documents can’t go undiscovered for long, and its mere hours before the entire weight of the British police forces and secret services are being bent to the task of hunting down Houston. That chase will take Houston and some reluctant allies through London and across the south of England in a mad dash for the Isle of Wight and the dubious safety of the Wehrmacht. Credit to Mr Cole, once again – it’s a highly imaginative plot with some excellent background work, and generally well-paced as well, particularly as the hunt becomes ever-more tense towards the end of the book.
But let’s return to Billy Houston, because quite frankly he’s the star of the book. Perhaps the main reason for that is because, historically, the stereotype of pre-war supporters of fascism in Britain has been focused (somewhat understandably) on the middle-class and upper-class elements; men like Oswald Mosley, William Joyce, John Amery and the 5th Duke of Wellington have dominated the academic and popular discussions, such as they are. But it’s far too easy to forget that the BUF and its ilk often had significant working-class support, albeit of a kind that is far less likely to be so obvious in the historical record. Although Billy Houston is a fictional creation, in creating him the author has tapped into that lesser-known support and in turn created a fascinating character study. His dedication to the cause of fascism, anti-semitism and a desire for German occupation of the British Isles immediately rings true as soon as you meet Houston, as does his antipathy towards his alleged ‘betters’ in the BUF and Right Club, who were happy to allow him to quietly recruit from his class, but dropped him completely once the war began. That dedication is really at the core of his character, and Cole has perfectly replicated the ‘true believer’ archetype, as a dogged belief in the cause of fascism keeps Houston going when everything seems to going against him in his journey to the Isle of Wight.
Indeed, the more I read of Every Second Counts, the more I was easily drawn into the world that the author had conjured up. The characters are detailed and engaging, often despite their repulsive attitudes, and the stolen defence plans are an intriguingly measured plot device; although they won’t by themselves lead to the fall of Britain, they would be a major ace in the hole for the Armistice negotiations, and also aid an invasion if one eventually did take place. Those negotiations, and the feverish preparations for them to take place, are also a major strand of Every Second Counts, and once again Cole has done a great job. Although some of the dialogue can be a little confusing at times in the way it’s set out in the pages, Cole generally has a good handle for how these preparations would take place, and also confidently and engagingly brings the reader into the murky and treacherous world of international diplomacy. I particularly enjoyed the political conflict revolving around the Spanish Embassy and its diplomatic staff, especially when it’s revealed that one of the attaches is actually a senior Abwehr spy helping Houston smuggle the plans out of the country.
Conflict of various types is at the heart of Every Second Counts, and Cole works well with it to drive the plot forward and engage the characters. The conflict between Britain and Nazi Germany is an obvious one towering above all of the others, but social and class conflict is also a significant element in the novel. Just as Billy Houston is angry at his perceived lower class and the unfairness of liberal, democratic society, we see tension and subtle conflict between diplomat and Abwehr spy Graebner and his assistant, a former Spanish soldier who has a justifiable grudge against the aristocratic officer class like Graebner. There’s also Graebner's constant strive to prove himself as a pure Aryan patriot to his colleagues despite his Spanish birth. Every Second Counts revels in conflict, is underlain with it, and Cole deftly makes use of it to create such an engaging plot line and realistic characters.
Short, punchy chapters keep the plot going and the pace moving nicely, and there are just enough different viewpoints to provide variety without descending into outright confusion. Cole writes well, especially towards the latter-half of the novel as it becomes an outright chase thriller, and the tension thickens as the page count mounts. Indeed, the only real complaint I can bring up is the ending – it’s incredibly abrupt, strangely so when the rest of the book is so confidently written. It feels like the author either ran out of time or word count and it is something of a disappointment, but fortunately doesn’t really detract from what the rest of the book has achieved. Ultimately Every Second Counts is a skilled and confident alternate history crime thriller, with an interesting and engaging take on one of the most over-used and clichéd topics of the genre, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next in the series.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews