Trail 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.
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 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
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