Relief Map is a good story, but the plot does require a heavy dose of suspended disbelief. The entire plot hinges on events that seem exaggerated: a very small town is completely held hostage by federal agents as they search for a fugitive. No one is allowed in or out. No electricity. No phones. In itself, it seems an extreme reaction, but the way the story unfolds adds to the embellishment. Over and again it is emphasized how small the town of Lomath is. It is “unincorporated, unidentified on most road maps.” So why is it so difficult for a team of local police and federal bureau agents to complete a thorough search? As the story progresses, the right characters are in the right places at the right times and, for the sake of the plot, it's all too convenient. (And don't get me started on Mark, the kidnapping victim: a subplot with such unbelievable actions and reactions, but which furthers the story in predictable ways.)
And yet, the story moves swiftly and is interesting. Knecht creates characters that attract and repel one another well. She places them in situations that, while sensational, are intense and explosive. She weaves these elements together with sentences that are relatively simple, but effective and concise. Relief Map is almost geared toward a young adult audience, but not really. It's difficult to categorize.
Here's the best way I can explain Relief Map. It reminds me of The Outer Limits. Not the classic 1960s show, but the revival that aired in the 90s. Throughout its seven-year run, there were several episodes where characters were placed in close quarters and had to learn who to trust and figure out how to survive. Sometimes the agent of fear was alien, sometimes it was viral, but many times it was fear itself. Unlike its earlier iteration, the revival often featured a younger cast—high-school or college students. And most indicative of the series was a strong sense of over-dramatization. The characters overacted and the story was “out of this world.” For all these reasons, I think Relief Mapbears a strong similarity to these stories. Some may see that as an incendiary comment, but by no means do I mean it that way. I'm a fan of The Outer Limits and sure, there's a high degree of camp to the series, but that's part of its appeal. When we watch the series and see a group survive impossible circumstances, battle alien overlords, and face a predicament larger than any in the group imagined, we accept it. We don't expect to look out our window and see alien overlords. We seek entertainment, with the added bonus of a bite-sized moral lesson.
Relief Map isn't believable in our current culture. Even if the feds completely shut down a small town to catch one fugitive (which really wouldn't surprise me much), the outcomes wouldn't be so perfectly packaged. But the story succeeded in creating tension, sustaining interest, and leaving the reader with a question or two to consider. While that may not be satisfactory to every reader, it's certainly enough to satisfy many.