Hugo Spotlight: Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning Is an Action-Adventure with Intricate Depth

In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

There is an argument to be made that, of all the skills in the writer’s toolbox, the one that makes a writer great is the skill marked NARRATIVE. The others—PROSE, CHARACTERISATION, IMAGINATION, DIALOGUE—are important, but I argue that no widely-renowned writer has ever had this said about them: “I only read X’s books for the dialogue.”

Whereas you can hear it said: “I only read X’s books for the story.” I say this all the time, oftenest about Dan Brown. (Dear Dan Brown: please don’t have your feelings hurt by this, especially because I am a know-nothing nobody and you have probably had to have money surgically removed from your soft tissue.) You can have your points maxed out in any one of these categories—in two or three, or in nearly all of them—but if you can’t tell a good story, you might as well re-train to write the backs of cereal boxes, and be happy.

Rebecca Roanhorse maxed out her points in storytelling. Unfairly, she also scores very high in the other categories—her characters are textured, nuanced, compelling; her dialogue has that natural, funny, easy quality you get in real life, if you are lucky enough to have smart and funny friends; the imaginative worlds she builds are worlds in which I would dearly love to live, if briefly, and if given a large amount of firepower first. Her prose is clear and easy and skillful, which means you can drink it in large amounts, like very good-quality wine, and not notice until it is hours later and way too late, like very good-quality wine. This makes it very easy for Roanhorse to twist the knife—if you don’t have a lot of time but would love to get kicked super hard in the junk, I can well recommend her Apex Magazine short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” otherwise if you have more time and would like to get kicked super hard in the junk you can just go on to The Sixth World series, beginning with Trail of Lightning.

Do not get me wrong. Trail of Lightning is not a “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?” story. If I wanted to be serious, I would describe Trail of Lightning as a story of America after the apocalypse, and of a Diné woman who wishes she didn’t love killing quite so much.

I thought a lot about how to write that summary, and for me it works and it doesn’t. Even as a non-American, I can see it is risible to say that a story is about America, which has a breadth that defies storytelling. Then again, considering that Dinétah, the site of the story and the former Navajo reservation, is not historically a place that has been centered as ‘America’, I will therefore center it here. Diné is central to who, where and how protagonist Magdalena ‘Maggie’ Hoskie is; I almost used ‘monster hunter’ instead of ‘woman’—it’s accurate—but Maggie is a woman who loves killing, and I loved her for it from the start. Maggie loves killing. Maggie kills for work, Maggie kills for mercy. Maggie has a custom shotgun, a Böker machete, magical bloodlust, and a terrible romantic history.

If I wanted to attract anyone who was, like myself, an idiot who critically judged books by if the hero could describe all of their weapons in technical detail and did in the opening chapters, I would describe Trail of Lightning as a story about kicks, punches’n’ bullets, throwing a knife into Heaven, walking away from explosions, a protagonist who… works alone, so don’t get in their way, an improbably dapper prettyboy, and an inhospitable monster-filled backdrop where these bullets, kicks’n’ punches happen. There it is. That’s my Id. Pew!! Blam!!! On a pile of monsters Maggie broods roughly into the distance, shouldering her cool gun, her cherry-red Chevy pick-up truck gleaming radly in the sunset, while love-interest Kai handsomely wishes she was more emotionally available!!! God help me.

But it is both. Trail of Lightning contains multitudes. It is a deeply crunchy action story about Maggie Hoskie, a hero-trained monsterslayer of Dinétah, a place that has been kept in relatively good nick a few decades after Big Water, the polar icemelt megaflood that abruptly ended the Energy Wars. Outside is the rest of Arizona, and the new players after the apocalypse: the Exalted Mormon Kingdom. New Denver. (Roanhorse’s Sixth World universe is its own thing entirely, but if you get warm thoughts of Fallout: New Vegas you may appreciate the world as I appreciated it, with a few wistful thoughts about wishing Maggie Hoskie could’ve teamed up with the Courier and whaled on Robert House.)

On the trail of a witch-made monster, Maggie gets involved with Kai Arviso, a medicine man with approximately sixty thousand secrets. Their dusty misadventure is a whistle-stop tour of some of the best and worst of the Dinétah—gods and men, gods who look like men, men who look like gods, and the walking dead. It’s loads of fun. Roanhorse has the trick of fully fleshing out her world while never having anyone describe things or concepts that would be too universal for them to bother describing; the audience is let in on important ideas and happenings in the trickle-down way I love, giving me enough facts that my appetite is whetted for them but never making the mistake of giving me an actual meal of the things. One learns about what happened with the death of the Fifth World—the age before Big Water, the world that died when Maggie was around fifteen—in a natural dripfeed way, the same way that we learn what happened to Maggie herself—how Maggie awoke to her clan power, Maggie’s family, Maggie’s entanglement with her mentor Neizghání. It’s a subtle, tactical deployment of worldbuilding, and it’s a subtle, tactical deployment of Maggie’s trauma.

Because one of the aspects of Trail of Lightning that makes it so thoroughly worthy of its Hugo nomination is that although it is a bam-bam lightning-paced truck-wheels-squealing adventure that made my lizard brain clap and be pleased, it is also a story of a woman who watched her childhood get eaten up and no longer knows if there is any meat beneath the armour she has built for herself. The world of Trail of Lightning is intricate and full: one of those worlds that seems to come already-instantiated. There is no ounce of fat on the prose, and like the very best of first-person narration, Maggie suffuses the text without distracting from it. But Roanhorse weaves the story of a hell of an adventure along with the story of a girl whose idol has feet of serious clay along with the story of a monster hunter who is more emotional scar tissue than skin. It is all the same story. Rebecca Roanhorse is good, man.

If you have read all this and are unclear about my feelings: Trail of Lightning is an excellent book. It is worthy of all its multiple nominations. It’s a very fun time. It’s also a very resonant time, with guts to it, which is like someone telling you that your favourite junk food also has nutritional value. I hope the universe of the Sixth World is a sandbox Roanhorse plays in a lot. And despite me loving it as a book very much, I give it my highest accolade:

Where is my retro ‘90s LucasArts-style point-and-click ‘Trail of Lightning’ adventure game??

Tamsyn Muir is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose works have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, F&SF, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld. Her fiction has received nominations for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. A Kiwi, she has spent most of her life in Howick, New Zealand, with time living in Waiuku and central Wellington. She currently lives and teaches in Oxford, in the United Kingdom. Gideon the Ninth is her first novel.

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