Sometimes Twitter really, really comes through. I’m thinking, “I would love to read more works by Indigenous writers” and also “I would love to read some more science fiction and fantasy this summer” and the people I follow must have picked up on that because everyone was all, “You have got to read this.” Well, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning lives up to the hype. It’s an intense, richly presented urban fantasy adventure that leaves me wanting more.
It’s the near future, and the Big Water has swallowed up most of the continent. The former Navajo Nation, or Dinétah as it is called here, is one of the few places to remain dry. With the coming of the Big Water and the beginning of the Sixth World, though, comes monsters—both human and otherwise. Maggie Hoskie has made a living for herself hunting and killing those monsters. As the story begins, Maggie stumbles onto something bad. To confront it, she reluctantly partners up with the grandson of a powerful medicine man (who is powerful in his own right). Together, Maggie and Kai pick up the trail of a witch who is making monsters. But along the way they find there’s a lot more than meets the eye, and it involves Coyote and other gods and figures of legend—including the immortal monsterslayer who trained Maggie before turning his back on her.
It’s true that Supernatural is a natural choice for comparing to Trail of Lightning, and I definitely feel that vibe. But as a somewhat more unlikely choice, I’m going to say that this book reminds me of Dark Angel, a much shorter-lived yet nevertheless poignant TV show. I think it’s largely two things: the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, and the irrepressible heroines. Maggie might not be a government transgenic experiment like Max, but like Max she has certain abilities that make her a stronger and better fighter—even if they occasionally terrify her. The cage match in this book also reminded me of the episode of Dark Angel where Max must do something similar. Maybe these all seem like superficial correspondences, but that’s what I thought of while following Maggie’s adventure.
I really respect the way that Roanhorse refuses to give us a straightforward or linear narrative. Every time it seems like Maggie is on to something, like we know the next piece of the puzzle, something happens to force a change in direction—either physically or psychologically. This can occasionally be frustrating for the reader, since of course, we often crave plots that satisfy us by connecting the dots. Yet it can also be rewarding, because this replicates the messiness of real life, and when handled properly like it is here, the story is richer and deeper in the telling. Roanhorse makes the mess work by using each interruption as an opportunity for us to learn more about Maggie (or Kai), either in something that they or another character reveal, or in their response to the changing situation. Trail of Lightning is not an exceptionally long book, yet I feel like I already got to know Maggie quite well.
While avoiding spoilers, I just want to say that I really like how the central antagonist is developed, revealed, and dealt with. It isn’t hard to unravel the mystery here, but it’s still nicely executed and results in a truly emotional moment for Maggie as she understand the magnitude of what’s happening all around her. Essentially, it’s the baddest of badass supervillain power moves to exploit the protagonist’s dogged perseverance, and that’s what happens here: Maggie not giving up is ultimately almost her undoing! It is such a cold moment, to realize how much you’ve been manipulated most of your life, and then to have to make such a difficult decision, in a crisis, to stave off further suffering.
It isn’t my lane to comment on how Roanhorse uses Diné legends and culture in this story. Suffice it to say, I’m pleased to see more stories by Indigenous writers, featuring Indigenous protagonists (especially Indigenous women) being published by mainstream presses. Often I see comments along the lines of, “Oh, the book is great on its own merits, regardless of the fact it’s #ownvoices or has an Indigenous protagonist or whatnot” … but that’s really not true. That’s whitewashing. The whole point is that Trail of Lightning works because of its Diné connections; they literally inspire and create the entire tapestry of this story. The whole point is that Indigenous voices and stories—whether they are traditional, historical, contemporary, SF, fantasy, or any combination thereof—deserve to be told. So, yes, this is a damn good story and a damn good story featuring an Indigenous protagonist—and these two things cannot be separated or evaluated distinctly.
I’m here for it, and I’m here for the sequel. There’s so much story right here to tell, and I’m excited for what sounds like the start of a brilliant urban fantasy series.