Trail of Lightning

by Rebecca Roanhorse

Cover image

Series: The Sixth World #1
Publisher: Saga
Copyright: 2018
ISBN: 1-5344-1351-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 286

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Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter. Trained and then inexplicably abandoned by Neizghání, an immortal monster-slayer of her people, the Diné (Navajo), she's convinced that she's half-monster herself. Given that she's the sort of monster hunter who also kills victims that she thinks may be turned into monsters themselves, she may have a point. Apart from contracts to kill things, she stays away from nearly everyone except Tah, a medicine man and nearly her only friend.

The monster that she kills at the start of the book is a sign of a larger problem. Tah says that it was created by someone else using witchcraft. Maggie isn't thrilled at the idea of going after the creator alone, given that witchcraft is what Neizghání rescued her from in an event that takes Maggie most of the book to be willing to describe. Tah's solution is a partner: Tah's grandson Kai, a handsome man with a gift for persuasion who has never hunted a monster before.

If you've read any urban fantasy, you have a pretty good idea of where the story goes from there, and that's a problem. The hair-trigger, haunted kick-ass woman with a dark past, the rising threat of monsters, the protagonist's fear that she's a monster herself, and the growing romance with someone who will accept her is old, old territory. I've read versions of this from Laurell K. Hamilton twenty-five years ago to S.L. Huang's ongoing Cas Russell series. To stand out in this very crowded field, a series needs some new twist. Roanhorse's is the deep grounding in Native American culture and mythology. It worked well enough for many people to make it a Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy nominee. It didn't work for me.

I partly blame a throw-away line in Mike Kozlowski's review of this book for getting my hopes up. He said in a parenthetical note that "the book is set in Dinétah, a Navajo nation post-apocalyptically resurgent." That sounded great to me; I'd love to read about what sort of society the Diné might build if given the opportunity following an environmental collapse. Unfortunately, there's nothing resurgent about Maggie's community or people in this book. They seem just as poor and nearly as screwed as they are in our world; everyone else has just been knocked down even farther (or killed) and is kept at bay by magical walls. There's no rebuilding of civilization here, just isolated settlements desperate for water, plagued by local warlords and gangs, and facing the added misery of supernatural threats. It's bleak, cruel, and unremittingly hot, which does not make for enjoyable reading.

What Roanhorse does do is make extensive use of Native American mythology to shape the magic system, creatures, and supernatural world view of the book. This is great. We need a wider variety of magic systems in fantasy, and drawing on mythological systems other than Celtic, Greek, Roman, and Norse is a good start. (Roanhorse herself is Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, not Navajo, but I assume without any personal knowledge that her research here is reasonably good.) But, that said, the way the mythology plays out in this book didn't work for me. It felt scattered and disconnected, and therefore arbitrary.

Some of the difficulty here is inherent in the combination of my unfamiliarity and the challenge of adopting real-world mythological systems for stories. As an SFF reader, one of the things I like from the world-building is structure. I like seeing how the pieces of the magical system fit together to build a coherent set of rules, and how the protagonists manipulate those rules in the story. Real-world traditions are rarely that neat and tidy. If the reader is already familiar with the tradition, they can fill in a lot of the untold back story that makes the mythology feel more coherent. If the author cannot assume that knowledge, they can get stuck between simplifying and restructuring the mythology for easy understanding or showing only scattered and apparently incoherent pieces of a vast system. I think the complaints about the distorted and simplified version of Celtic mythology in a lot of fantasy novels from those familiar with the real thing is the flip-side to this problem; it's worse mythology, but it may be more approachable storytelling.

I'm sure it didn't help that one of the most important mythological figures of this book is Coyote, a trickster god. I have great intellectual appreciation for the role of trickster gods in mythological systems, but this is yet more evidence that I rarely get along with them in stories. Coyote in this story is less of an unreliable friend and more of a straight-up asshole who was not fun to read about.

That brings me to my largest complaint about this novel: I liked exactly one person in the entire story. Grace, the fortified bar owner, is great and I would have happily read a book about her. Everyone else, including Maggie, ranged from irritating to unbearably obnoxious. I was saying the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") by page 100.

Here, tastes will differ. Maggie acts the way that she does because she's sitting on a powder keg of unprocessed emotional injury from abuse, made far worse by Neizghání's supposed "friendship." It's realistic that she shuts down, refuses to have meaningful conversations, and lashes out at everyone on a hair trigger. I felt sympathy, but I didn't like her, and liking her is important when the book is written in very immediate present-tense first person. Kai is better, but he's a bit too much of a stereotype, and I have an aversion to supposedly-charming men. I think some of the other characters could have been good if given enough space (Tah, for instance), but Maggie's endless loop of self-hatred doesn't give them any room to breathe.

Add on what I thought were structural and mechanical flaws (the first-person narration is weirdly specific and detail-oriented in a way that felt like first-novel mechanical problems, and the ending is one of the least satisfying and most frustrating endings I have ever read in a book of this sort) and I just didn't like this. Clearly there are a lot of people nominating and voting for awards who think I'm wrong, so your mileage may vary. But I thought it was unoriginal except for the mythology, unsatisfying in the mythology, and full of unlikable characters and unpleasant plot developments. I'm unlikely to read more in this series.

Followed by Storm of Locusts.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-08-20

Last modified and spun 2019-08-21