Today on the author blog, Leland Lydecker reviews Trackers: A Post-Apocalyptic Survival Series by Nicholas Sansbury Smith.
Warning: contains spoilers.
As the title suggests, the Trackers series chronicles the struggles of the survivors of an apocalyptic event. That event is the detonation of several high-altitude EMPs over the contiguous United States. The attack is ostensibly retaliation for an ill-conceived mission which liberated the granddaughter of a US Senator from a North Korean prison camp.
Trackers begins with the inciting raid, then cuts to the day of the EMP strike. In regards to the science of the attack and how it might realistically be carried out, Sansbury Smith did his homework. Trackers contains one of the more believable end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve read.
The meat of the story concerns a gruesome murder mystery playing out at the same time as the attack and its aftermath. Compared to the stagnant fare of “the world is screwed and we’re trying to stay alive” that dominates the Post-Apocalyptic genre, this premise comes across as fresh and interesting. The rest of the novel, sadly, is more standard post-apocalyptic fare.
There’s a collection of unsurprisingly racist prepper types who happen to either be on the police force, ex-military, or both. The police chief organizes them to protect the town in the wake of the attack and hunt down the murderer. After arming themselves to the teeth, they set about securing the food supply, herding the survivors into fallout shelters, and protecting the local pharmacy from marauding drug addicts and grandmas in search of asthma medication. In a spot of unintentional comedy, one of their well-armed, highly-trained number is almost immediately felled by a looter with a brick.
As the body count rises, it becomes apparent that the local constabulary is woefully ill-equipped to apprehend the killer. The former Marine and his trusty canine companion are tasked with hunting down the murderer while the police force is occupied with protecting their own and keeping the terrified citizenry in line.
The story is told through the eyes of the former Marine, a fighter pilot whose plane went down due to the EMP blast, the police chief of the small Colorado town where most of the story takes place, the Marine’s sister, and a war hero US Senator. The transitions are handled well, and the multiple-viewpoints approach would have worked brilliantly if the author had spent more time developing the central characters.
Aside from the Native American ex-Marine– the tracker for whom the book is named– none of the characters are particularly memorable, interesting, or relatable. The Marine’s sister seemed to be off to a good start, but quickly devolved into an amalgamation of stereotypes: scared single mom, concerned nurse, and helpless woman. She adds little to the story aside from feeding the reader plot info and providing some well-timed crises. This is the purpose of many of the characters in Trackers: they exist simply to provide a bit of local color and reveal details the reader would otherwise have no reason to know.
The most poorly depicted and least necessary character is the war hero Senator– a woman who, despite being told that she is being rushed to safety because she’s “one of the important ones” in Washington, DC– thinks of little besides the well-being of her immediate friends and family. The Senator is supposedly a former fighter pilot, a job which takes a fair amount of mental fitness, and yet Sansbury Smith has written her as constantly on the edge of tears and so lacking in common sense that she doesn’t even have a holster for the pistol she keeps in her closet.
Every time the narrative broke away from the unfolding murder mystery to update the Senator’s status in Washington, I found myself wondering why we needed to know what was happening to her at all. The only answer I could come up with is that the Senator is the plot device by which to fill us in on the machinations of what remains of the US government.
This leads me to another major flaw in Trackers: the rather ham-handed way in which the murder mystery is written. There are a number of points where it would have been beneficial to leave the reader guessing and save the big reveal for the end of the book. One such item is the identity of the killer; yet that information is revealed barely a quarter of the way in. As promising as the union of mystery and post-apoc is, Sansbury Smith is not particularly adept at combining the two.
At its best, Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Trackers accomplishes the rare feat of convincing the notoriously intolerant fans of the Post-Apoc genre to cheer for a Native American hero. At its worst, Trackers presents a dystopian future where the elite move heaven and Earth to protect their own, where might makes right, and where everyone else is left to fend for themselves– with predictably unpleasant consequences.