Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse- Hugo Award Reads

Trail of Lightning, Roanhorse, Review - Hugo Awards 2019Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first of a new series called The Sixth World (Amazon) and listed as a Best Novel nominee on the Hugo Award ballot in 2019.

I was so excited to read this book; I’ve enjoyed Roanhorse’s short fiction thanks to nominations in previous Hugo years, and I am drinking in stories from such a delicious variety of authors, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

However, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped.

The positives

Roanhorse sets this not-urban fantasy in a near future Southwest US Navajo reservation, a sliver of the 1/3 of North America that survived a catastrophic climate event which flooded much of the US and created vast upheaval.  She doesn’t take time to detail the disaster much; I appreciated not having to wade through a political or science treatise to get to the story. (I say that as someone who’s deeply concerned about the rate of climate change and the US’s stubborn refusal to confront it.)

I liked the setting and the general premise, that Maggie (main character) is a Navajo and also a monster hunter. In the fiction, the disaster has somehow awakened the old gods and some Navajo experience “clan powers” — their maternal and paternal heritage links them to powerful spirits? magic? demons? and thus they experience greatly enhanced abilities in crisis moments.  Kind of superpowers.

Maggie’s “powers” are speed and a bloodlust that lets her kill non-human monsters (and monstrous humans, if necessary) with relative ease. As a fan of the Witcher novels and games, I was ALL IN on this premise.

The atmosphere is …solid….but not so well developed that I can rave about it.  Roanhorse uses Navajo words and cultural elements to enhance the setting, and honestly I think the setting may be the strongest element of this novel.

I should highlight a great scene about 3/4 through; I won’t spoil it, but you get to see — really see — some of the magical/fantasy elements present among the Dine’e (Navajo) people, and I loved her descriptions in that chapter. I felt like Roanhorse’s writing hit its peak at that point; very little in the book otherwise comes close.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the presence of Coyote the Trickster in the story. Anyone who’s read indigenous folktales will recognize Coyote. Roanhorse uses the stock character from the tales as the basis for a genuinely interesting character who delighted me whenever he appeared.

The weaknesses

The story follows a basic mystery structure, introducing us to a few key characters and a former mentor/lover. (No spoilers; you learn that in the first chapter.)  I can’t really say this book has much “meat.”  There are some good fights, and they’re written clearly — you can follow what happens. That’s a decent baseline.  I wanted more.

Likewise, the characters are laid in with general strokes – a “strong bad-ass heroine with a dark past”; “a handsome yet mysterious partner who joins her”;  “the mentor who was also a lover but it’s complicated”; “the caring father-figure.”  And so on.  Flip through any TTRPG character creation guide, choose the urban fantasy setting, spin the wheel.

Perhaps the greatest flaw to me is that Roanhorse leans on two tired tropes. First, we have an emotionally stunted “loner” heroine thanks to past trauma. I don’t mean to downplay the traumatic impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, but violence against women is too easy of a crutch for an inexperienced writer to lean on, in place of creating a fully rounded character who makes deep and meaningful choices. I feel that Maggie is lacking here, and I hope Roanhorse gives her a better future in the next book(s). Also, her trauma isn’t linked to imperialism; it’s a tragic backstory and violent act of crime that reminds me of the boilerplate way comic books tend to substitute “gee that’s horrible!” for a genuine backstory.  I’m not asking for Roanhorse to write a book that confronts American imperialism, but … I mean…. can her story do its best work by ignoring this almost completely?

Second, the entire book is written in the present progressive. I try really hard not to be a prescriptivist grammarian, but I had to grit my teeth at this. True, the present progressive lends a sense of immediacy to the action, but this is — to me —  nearly always a gimmick to create energy in weak prose, unless it’s wielded by a genuine master craftsman. (Even then, I’m still not sure I can get on board with long fiction written in present progressive.) I desperately wanted Roanhorse to work with a better editor.

I do need to critique my assumptions regarding the grammar; for example, the folktales in Native American culture as I’ve encountered them use a simplistic story structure and vocabulary. That doesn’t make them simplistic stories or less valuable than wordy modernist novels. I guess the problem here is that I can’t tell if this book is weakly written or if it’s following stylistic choices rooted in an unfamiliar culture.  Given no clear evidence of a cultural underpinning, I see it as inexperienced writing.

I noticed that many Goodreads reviewers assumed this book is YA rather than new fiction/ new adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against YA, but most of what’s on the shelves won’t win awards for writing or deep themes and plot. Despite the descriptions of violence, this book probably fares better when compared to YA rather than the typical Hugo nominee.

*****

I did enjoy the book overall. It’s not a bad book. I’m glad to see new voices and perspectives flagged for attention in the sci-fi universe.

That said, Trail of Lightning is a very weak Hugo nominee. Not as weak as what the “Rabid Puppies” got onto the Hugo ballot in 2013-15 (hoo boy, there was some shitty writing there), but still – weak. I want to see Roanhorse succeed, and I hope this series improves as it goes, because this world deserves to be explored.

And I kind of wish a different indigenous author had been the first to land a Hugo nomination, because the first person past the post may be the only author from an underrepresented group that the average reader will ever encounter.  Roanhorse’s work does provide a perspective rarely seen in sci-fi/fantasy, and for that I am grateful.

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

Review: 2.5/5

Recommended for those who like urban fantasy or are craving a Native American viewpoint for their dystopian future. Content warning for sexual violence and violent crime.

Hugo ballot position: bottom

Review: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal – Hugo Award reads

Calculating Stars, Kowal-Reviews / Hugo Awards The Calculating Stars (Amazon)

I remember Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” from my award list reading a few years ago. It went through some nomination drama and eventually appeared on the 2014 novelette ballot (I didn’t vote that year), winning the category.  That story launched this series, as I understand it, by introducing us to Elma York – America’s first woman astronaut in an alt-history world where humans took to the stars much earlier.  You can read the novelette for free on Tor.com.

SPOILER BIT SO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE NOVELETTE:  To me, the strength of the novelette lies in the excruciating choice that Elma must make in the twilight years of her life, to accept the mission because sending an aging body into space means the radiation won’t destroy the health of a younger astronaut, but trade away her chance to spend time with her dying husband in his final weeks of life. I knew nearly nothing about Elma or Nate (obviously), but the emotional punch of that story has not faded in the least since reading that story.

OK, SPOILER FREE AGAIN.

So I was genuinely interested in this first book of a two-prequel series by Kowal that promises to fill in the background of this “Lady Astronaut” who clearly (we know from just the title of the novelette) made it to Mars.

The world Kowal builds in The Calculating Stars is detailed and precise. It’s a nearly exact 1950s USA with one HUGE difference – a meteor strikes the seabed just off the coast of DC and Baltimore, obliterating the Eastern seaboard.  The US is forced to confront the reality of impending climate change (this is a similar theme to Stephenson’s Seveneves, which I hated so much).  Two chapters in, I knew I was reading a better book than Stephenson’s.  Kowal packs in the necessary scientific explanations of how a meteor strike would alter the earth’s climate to be hostile to life (cf: dinosaurs, way back when) and man’s only option is to take to space. So… they do.

This is the story of Elma York, a Jew and “calculator” who crunches numbers in the pre-digital era, echoes similar themes that occur in Hidden Figures. (My goodness, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, drop everything and go find it (like on Prime). And I’ve got the book on my pile to read, because I’ve heard it’s far more extensive than what they could fit into a film.).

That said…. this just wasn’t the book for me. Maybe it’s me? The writing is very good – crisp sentences, solid plotting, clear structure.  The story has stuck in my brain and keeps returning to my mind, so clearly the characters meant something to me.  But it felt too much like a history book that I hadn’t signed up to read, you know?

Elma  discrimination as a woman; she’s told outright that no women will fly to Mars, though she knows (as should everyone) that eventually a colony would need women around.  Of course, she’s a crack WASP-era pilot and spunky intelligent woman….but not without flaws that could imperil her trip into space.

I’m so divided about this book. I feel like I’m supposed to root for it, like it, give it to everyone I know, and feel smug because it’s progressive and all.

I think that’s the problem. Maybe I didn’t need Elma’s history filled in for me, because I’d rather read the actual history of the women in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and for decades centuries previously) whose contributions to science have always been overlooked.

Somehow, the alt-history tale of American misogyny and innovation falls flat (to me) compared to the actual horrors of 2019 or 1969 or Jim Crow, or the actual achievements of the Apollo project and Grace Hopper and Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (America’s first black woman in space).

Rating: 3.5/5  – it’s not you, Kowal, it’s me.

Buy a copy: Kindle | Print

Recommended for folks who enjoy the space program, the nuts and bolts of the relevant engineering problems, and alt-history.

Hugo Ballot: Middle

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

Review-Record Spaceborn Few-Chambers-Hugo Awards 2019Record of a Spaceborn Few (Amazon), by Becky Chambers, is the first book I picked up this spring when the 2019 Hugo Award nominations were announced. Having read and enjoyed her first two – not without flaws, but a very promising start for a new writer — I was excited to dig into book 3 of the Wayfarer series.

Clearly, this book sparks strong reactions. Goodreads reviews fork between 4’s and 2’s. Chambers is quickly growing as an author with the sensitivity to personal and social issues relevant to space opera stories. She’s not LeGuin, but there’s a lot of Ursula in her.

RoSF is a quiet book. It moves smoothly from scene to scene, not quite as smooth and snappy as a Scalzi (he’s almost too snappy, honestly, in recent works, bordering on becoming his own cliche), but flowing from point to point like a backwood stream.

Chambers’s Wayfarers series tells unconnected stories (so far) of various people in the same universe, where Earthers had to leave our planet in generational ships due to the destructive effects of climate change. They were limping along in deep space when an alien race found them and share crucial technologies  (power production, materials, food, etc) and laid the foundation for the Terrans to join the galactic community.

This third entry in the series takes time to explore what earlier books had not — the life of the humans who have elected to live in the orbital community of still-functioning generational ships, rather than leaving to work on transport ships or moving to a planet.

In many ways, the Earth fleet is a backwater small town, and its citizens face many of the same questions as someone from Nowhere, USA:  do I stay? leave? Are there jobs here that I want to do? What will I lose by leaving my community? What would I lose if I stay?

And likewise, there are always at least a few folks moving back, either because they seek their roots, or there’s something about the life on the fleet that appeals to them. The promise of the Earther fleet: we will feed you, house you, clothe you. No one will go hungry, or be left without aid. But in exchange, you will work, you will conserve materials and resources, you will learn to be part of the community.

*****
The novel tells its story by weaving together the journeys of five disparate residents of one Earth fleet ship:  a teen boy trying to decide what he’ll do with his life, a woman whose husband is gone on long-haul mining runs while she raises their two kids alongside their extended family, a 20-something drifter who left his lackluster planet life to find his roots in the generational ships, an ship archivist who cherishes her role preserving culture and making interspecies contact, and a young woman who serves as one of the Collectors of bodies once a person dies – nothing is wasted on a spaceship; human remains are composed and become part of the life cycle of the ship.

I enjoyed Chambers’ quiet revelations of these characters’ lives and decisions. Sometimes books need to be all explosions and action — and there are moments of fast-paced drama in this novel, though not many.

But big setpiece spectacles can leave out the quiet questions that would follow any sentient being into space, until eternity — why am I here? What am I supposed to do with this life?  How do I balance the tensions of family and community obligations against my own ambitions?

Books hit you differently at different times in your life. Perhaps I would have tired of Chambers’s third novel had I read it as a teen, but as a 40-something woman staring hard at the second half of her life, I appreciated Chambers dedication to asking the human questions that persist, regardless of whether we take to the stars or stay here.

The Collectors’ rituals especially interested me. Death is part of life, so how could we make loss more meaningful and purposeful? I loved the image of a “caste” of caretakers who help families navigate grief partly through training and partly by helping return the bodies to the “ground” whence they came, to be composed into the soil for the ship’s gardens.  Rituals reveal what a culture values, and Chambers’s future humans offer us an inspiring template (though not without its flaws).

Some criticize Chambers’s world for being too optimistic, lacking the ugly edges of a real human society.  I prefer to see her as standing in the best of the optimistic sci-fi tradition o Star Trek (for example), holding firm in the belief that we all stand to gain much by seeing examples of humans who have solved some of the worst problems of humanity.

Buy: Kindle / print

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for fans of her earlier books, and those who appreciate the quiet social science of LeGuin (but don’t expect that level of craftsmanship in the writing).

Hugo ranking – I haven’t set my 2019 voting ballot yet, but I will put RoaSF somewhere in the upper half.