TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse (Book Review)
I was very grateful to get an ARC of this upcoming release from NetGalley, as it’s a book I’d heard great things about…
Wait – upcoming release, you say? Didn’t this come out in 2018 and hasn’t it already won the 2019 Locus Award for Best First Novel? Well, yes, but now apparently it’s finally being published in the UK (by Hodder and Stoughton), with a snazzy new cover, together with the sequel, Storm of Locusts. So, as a UK-based reviewer on a UK-based site, it seemed a good time to take a look.
And it certainly was.
If you haven’t heard, Trail of Lightning is the story of a Navajo monster-hunter, Maggie Hoskie, set in the Southwestern US after an apocalyptic event submerges much of the world and unleashes the creatures of Navajo mythology.
I can’t claim to have read a great deal of urban fantasy or post-apocalyptic fiction, but I’m always on the lookout for something different – and Trail of Lightning fits the bill.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have a lot of the tropes I’d associate with the genres it combines. We have a female monster-slayer with special powers – not a chosen one, per se, but definitely singled out. We have the rough makings of a love triangle – though not a particularly healthy one. And there are heavily-armed compounds and scarcities and blood-sport arenas and a general lack of information and infrastructure – as you might well expect, especially if you watched a lot of 80s movies.
Of course, tropes aren’t necessarily a problem, especially if done well – and there’s certainly no complaints on that account here – but Trail of Lightning is more than just a well-told post-apocalyptic urban fantasy.
Everything from the reservation setting to the monsters to the god-like supernatural beings to the characters themselves is unapologetically Navajo, and it brings a whole ‘nother dimension to the book. Part of the joy of fantasy is being transported to a different world, even if it’s still roughly the same one (i.e. Earth). The Dinétah setting of Trail of Lightning accomplishes that in spades – and it’s not just a gimmick. A good setting is more than just window-dressing, and in bringing the traditional Navajo homeland to life – both literarily and, within the book, literally – Roanhorse has accomplished what the characters might call Big Medicine.
Oddly enough, the way rez life seems to operate, you get the feeling it may have been the least changed by the apocalypse. There’s also a distinct retro feel, since the apocalypse knocks out today’s ubiquitous technology (like mobile phones). The combination of the two means you accept Maggie driving around in a pickup truck older than she is, because absolutely nothing else would fit. Frankly, the author might well have started with Maggie and the pickup, and built the world to explain it. The whole book is that sort of perfect blend; a perfect storm.
But it’s not just the ingredients, as I said before. The characters are pitch-perfect, too, from Maggie herself, to her wannabe partner-slash-love-interest, to her supernatural allies and adversaries. Nothing in the book unfolds quite as you’d expect, either. What starts as a simple monster hunt soon embroils self-appointed lawmen, trickster Coyotes, and the family of perhaps the last saloon owner in the West. And the ending…pow!
It’s easy to see why the book has taken fantasy fandom by storm, being at once both an archetypal (post-apocalyptic) urban fantasy and something more. And there’s even more to come in the sequel, for sure – good thing you don’t have to wait!
TRAIL OF LIGHTNING and its sequel, STORM OF LOCUSTS, will be released in the UK on November 28th 2019.