Toils and Snares, by Robert L. Slater (27:08)

IOD score cardToday we see that civilization is fleeting and fragile.

What I gleaned about the story: Samuel has been watching a plague unfold, and has finally been convinced that he needs to gather up his family and high-tail it for the wilderness.

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WTF #1: Minor (but persistent) editing issues


He’d been in the office crunching numbers until two days ago when the Emergency Order had been issued.

“Maria is our daughter.” His face flushed hot. “When you married me, she was part of the package.I know you two don’t get along, but she is ours.”

“If Maria hasn’t called by tomorrow, you can leave with them while I head East to find her.”

The first and third are instances of Unnecessary Special Capitalization. In the second, there was just a weird missing space after a period.

It took all three to really snap my immersion. The opening scene makes it clear that there’s a lot of character relationships to understand, and my brain was trying very hard to puzzle out who these folks were. That’s generally a positive sign, though I’ll admit the decision to kick off the book by showing the husband and wife arguing left me a little cold, wondering if I really wanted to spend a whole book with a quarrelsome couple.

The editing issues don’t fully go away (a lot are of the “maybe this should be hyphenated” variety) but the book is making a solid play for my attention, so it’s easy to let them slide.

WTF #2: Inexplicable character behavior

Analysis: Sometimes you read a scene, and you know on a conscious level what you’re supposed to get from it, but it just lands wrong.

Chapter Two has a moment that’s striving for greatness, but for me it fell jarringly flat. Maria, Samuel’s daughter, has gone onto a Native American reservation to look for her boyfriend. She finds his parents’ house in disarray. She discovers his father lying dead in his bed. She discovers her boyfriend curled up at the foot of that bed, utterly inconsolable.

So far, the chapter is on a roll. It’s building toward a powerful moment. She needs to get him back on his feet so he can join the quest in progress. But the way she does it…

Maria’s mind raced. How should she tell him? Her heart pounded and her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She knelt in front of James and held his face in her hands. “I’m scared,” she said, soft and gentle, “because I don’t know what’s going to happen to our baby.” She watched James process the information.

“Oh, god.” James’ eyes closed. He turned away from her. After a moment he returned to face her. “If you were… But, I… I didn’t—” His jaw tightened as he glanced at his father’s body on the bed. “I don’t know if I can handle it, Ria.”

Maria’s stomach churned. “We’re gonna be fine.” Her hands returned to his face. “I’m here. You’re here. We’ll handle it. Together.”

“Yeah.” His features softened. “We’re gonna have a baby?”


James stared at her. His eyes lit up, and he jumped to his feet, dragging Maria gently to hers. “We’re gonna have a baby.” He wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet. “Can we name him after my father?

“Who says we’re having a boy?” Maria laughed. Her heart warmed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed.

James kissed her. She closed her eyes, tasting salt on his rough lips.

I get that he’s been inconsolable, is losing his will to live, and needs some ray of hope to latch onto. I get that the juxtaposition has a nice “circle of life” vibe to it.

But… dude. Your dead dad’s laying right there. It feels a little like the scene from Game of Thrones where [spoiler redacted], but without the awareness that the scene is super creepy.

[Note from Jefferson: To me, this kind of revelation takes a book deep into melodrama territory, and leaves it teetering right on the brink of cliché. Especially when the victim of the manipulation reacts exactly as the perpetrator intended, and shows no nuance or complexity of emotion in their reaction.]

WTF #3: Big picture rewrite

Analysis: They’ve been on the road for a little while, headed towards the cabin in the woods. They stop for gas.

“You need to go yet, Anna?” They rolled into the rest stop crossways and he left the motor running. Not like he had to worry about wasting gas. With most of the population dead, the planet’s fossil fuels were no longer endangered.

Up to now, it’s been pretty hard to gauge the actual extent of the plague. The evidence we’ve seen so far argues against this much destruction. The roads are clear, most of the radio stations are working. Hospitals are struggling, but still treating patients. Cellular communications are struggling, but the texts are still flowing. Samuel was working his number-crunching job until two days ago.

This sounds like a world where basic infrastructure is still functioning, not one that’s just suffered the loss of “most” of its people. It’s possible that Portland is just one of the last bastions of normalcy, having missed the worst of the plague. There’s even a hint of this in the suggestion that, unlike other major cities, it hasn’t seen a great deal of rioting. But it feels like the story hasn’t fully accounted for how little would be left working after a plague of this scale.

With most of the people dead and many of the rest hunkering down or fleeing, who is keeping the radio stations going? Who is still supplying the radio stations with electricity? Who is feeding the people who supply the radio stations with electricity? Why do the police stick around to enforce the curfews? Who is sticking around to manage the city budget so the police get paid?

I mean, without thinking too hard about the pure emotional trauma of it, how well could you continue doing your job if 70% of your co-workers died? You may be under the impression that you’re the only one in your office who really does anything, but still… 70%? Then you have to re-evaluate again, when you consider that all the external entities your job normally interacts with have suffered similar losses.

[Note from Jefferson: Society still functioning with approx 70% dead in the course of 2 days? The Black Plague only killed half that and took 3 full years to run its course. Yet, even at that low a mortality rate, spread over so long a period, it triggered a collapse of European society and was followed by decades of economic chaos.]


But no matter how much impact you think a 70% death rate might have, the problem remains that sending readers back to mentally reinterpret everything they’ve read since the beginning of the book is a fast way to derail forward momentum. Had a little bit more of the big-picture information been sprinkled in early on, it might not have hit me here with so much of a whiplash.

On the plus side, if you step away from the particulars of societal collapse and accept that their world is going to hell, and that the hand-basket has just caught fire, there’s a lot to love about this book. It’s highly character-driven and the writing is generally good (the minor editing issues aside). So if you’re interested in a “prepper” story (people who are anticipating societal collapse and getting ready to rough it), this could be a fun selection.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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