Gods, Monsters, and Wicked Men: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

When the sea levels rose and the world was flooded, the Diné built a wall around what once was the Navajo reservation, now called Dinétah. As the Fifth World was drowned by the Big Water and the Sixth World rose up, so too did creatures from Diné legend. That wall keeps enemies out, but monsters in. Which is where Maggie Hoskie comes in. She takes on the monsters terrorizing her people using her clan powers, the speed of Honágháahnii (“one walks around”) and the killing prowess of K’aahanáanii (“living arrow”). When we first meet Maggie, she’s stuck in stasis. Abandoned by the man she loved and her only family dead, she’s alone and pretending not to be lonely. She’s hired to rescue a young girl and finds instead a whole new breed of monster.

Maggie cautiously accepts the help of Kai Arviso, the grandson of Tah, the only person in the whole of Dinétah who cares for her, and the two head off to investigate. Kai is a healer and medicine man, but something else, something Maggie can’t quite put her finger on. Soon, enemies, mortal and immortal alike, are hemming in on all sides, and Maggie and Kai are dragged in over their heads. Maggie’s survival depends on great sacrifice. She must fight for her life, literally, to save a world that has shunned her.

Rebecca Roanhorse is an author to watch. She knows her stuff, how to twist the knife to make it hurt so good and how to turn the screw to make it almost too stressful to handle. I got hooked on her through her Nebula-winning, Hugo-nominated short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” which is so good I can’t even. So of course I was dying to get my greedy little hands on Trail of Lightning.

First off, we have to talk about Maggie. I’ve read a lot of urban/rural fantasy over the years, and she has to be one of my all-time favorite leads, both in that sub-genre and out. She’s tougher than Buffy Summers, more emotionally damaged than Harry Dresden, and more stubborn than Sierra Santiago. Wherever Maggie goes, trouble follows. She is as physically fierce as she is emotionally fragile. That fragility is one of the things that sets her apart from most urban/rural fantasy heroes. Rebecca Roanhorse takes the time to show the repercussions of Maggie’s experiences. What grounds her, what makes her a relatable character isn’t just what she goes through, but how she faces it and how it haunts her anyway. In the real world we can’t wave a magic wand over our pain, and neither can Maggie.

In Maggie we see the vast extent of damage trauma inflicts on survivors. She experienced a horrifying near-death experience as a child and witnessed the brutal murder of her grandmother by a sadistic witch and his posse. As a young adult, she was trapped in an abusive relationship with a partner who caused as much pain leaving her life as he did when he entered it. And as an adult she’s constantly harassed by a man who thinks police brutality and toxic masculinity are compliments. That isn’t just some tragic backstory. Subtract the magical elements and there are real issues here. Domestic abuse, sexual/verbal/physical assault, PTSD, the patriarchy, and state-sanctioned violence all make appearances but are thankfully never sugar coated or swept under the rug.

Kai isn’t quite as nuanced as Maggie, although there are plot-related reasons for that. It’s not so much that he isn’t as interesting or developed, but that withholding seems to be his dominant personality trait. Even his secrets have secrets. Getting to know someone like that can be a challenge, but by the end of the book he proves himself well worth the work. He also makes for a striking contrast to both Neizghání, the monster slayer god who trained Maggie, and Ma’ii (aka Coyote) who plays with Maggie like a cat with a mouse. They each take what they want from her regardless of whether or not she wants to give it, but only one offers her something in return. Doesn’t make his actions right or fair, but it does complicate him even further.

Trail of Lightning reminds me a bit of two other recent fantasy stories: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland and Witchmark by C.L. Polk. The three stories aren’t similar in tone or style, but each take an old trope and filter it through a diversity lens to make it shiny and new. It’s not just that Maggie is Diné, but that she lives in Dinétah with creatures from Diné legend. Her mannerisms, language, habits, interactions, relationships, and expectations are informed by her heritage as much as the novel itself is tied to Roanhorse’s. You couldn’t drop Dresden into her world and make it work. He would forever be interpreting Dinétah through a white male perspective. This book is a lot of things, but what it’s not is a colonizer’s narrative. Non-Natives are present, but this isn’t their story or their framework. Refreshingly, everything about Trail of Lightning is Diné.

I went into Trail of Lightning knowing little about Diné culture or spiritual beliefs. While Roanhorse doesn’t hold your hand through the culturally-specific bits, she does offer the reader enough context to figure it out on their own. After I finished, I spent some time researching and got even more out of the story. Not in the sense that I didn’t get stuff before, but that I understood it more after some digging. Now I’m all hyped up for the hope for an appearance by Neizghání’s twin brother Tóbájíshchíní (“child of water”). Will he turn up in future installments? Here’s hoping. Given how Trail of Lightning ends, there’s a lot of room for the twins to make Maggie’s life even worse.

What’s not to love about Trail of Lightning? It’s rural fantasy at its finest. Because I’m not Diné I’m sure there’s plenty of sociocultural context I missed. But even on a cursory level, it’s a frakking awesome novel and a fantastic prelude to what is sure to be a thrilling series.

Trail of Lightning is available from Saga Press.

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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