Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse
Subjective Chaos – Best Blurred Boundary Nominee
Publisher – Saga Press
Price - £10.99 paperback £8.99 kindle eBook
Published – Out Now
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse. Dinetah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters. Maggie Hoskins is a Dinetah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding – and best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine. Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favours with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind her disappearances, she will have to confront her past – if she wants to survive. Welcome to the Sixth World.
Sometimes you expect a blurred boundary to be obvious you will see immediately see elements x and y mixed straightaway. Psychology of Time Travel for example mixes time travel with alternate history pretty much from the starting chapter. But sometimes it’s a more subtle transition which can be a much greater surprise when you realise the type of story you’ve been reading all along – The Raven Tower mixes a fantasy tale of gods with a revenge plot. A perfect example of this latter approach is this novel by Rebecca Roanhorse which has been hovering on my imminent TBR pile for some time as I’ve heard very good things and I’m pleased to report has already been one of my most enjoyable 2019 reads.
The world as we know it has been destroyed by storms and rising sea levels. The Dinetah was saved by walls created around the land by Gods and in so doing herald the creation of the Sixth World. At the same time magic and gods of native American legend are now firmly back on earth and everyone is trying to find a new life for themselves and their families. We first meet Maggie Hoskins accepting after some hard negotiations a mission to find a kidnapped child. It ends badly though, and you are immediately finding out that this world is not one with easy solutions to magical problems. Maggie is not a wisecracking private investigator – she is a haunted by her past; extremely determined, dangerous and not yet sure where she fits in.
My initial feeling was that we were in a sort of urban fantasy environment and this was helped by the appearance of the charming but mysterious Kai Arviso a handsome silver-tongued partygoing but gifted medicine man. The two very different characters join forces and become a very skilled balanced double act; and on Kai’s part flirt single handily, as they try to work out what is going on. The tale takes them into awkward conflicts with the local police known as Law Dogs – one of whom has a substantial dislike of Maggie. The tale takes them to meet the mysterious trickster God known as Coyote who points them towards a likely suspect. Hovering on the edges is Maggie’s immortal mentor who she left in mysterious circumstances – Neizghani the immortal monster hunter. Ad into the tail of underground magical fights; gangs and a growing army of man-made monsters.
So, on the one hand we have a mystery for the lead to solve and that thread is perfectly fine. Maggie is an engaging narrator – dry humoured; very informative and someone you want to know more about as she hints about her earlier years at the time the world changed plus her time hanging out with the god Neizghani. But what for me became a growing feeling was that I was entering a much bigger epic and often unusually mythic fantasy.
Roanhorse succeeds in doing this in two ways. Firstly, her excellently paced action sequences are not just magical sfx filled set pieces, instead this is a much more amorphous and painful magic with consequences both metal and physical for its users. In this world people often are finding after traumatic events that their magical powers awaken based around their clan history. Some like Kai have healing powers while Maggie’s we find lean more towards super speed and strength. However, each time they’re used the bearer seems further influenced by them and people are still figuring how this works in this new period and whether the magic is altogether a good thing – a huge factor in Maggie’s isolation. There isn’t a handy spell book/academy explaining everything. The magic is also just one element of this world exploring Native American history and mythology. Its an unusual world where mock American diners exist alongside coffee shortages; police violence and corruption plus gods walking down the streets. This isn’t stereotypical urban fantasy but raises issues relevant to the current world.
As an example of how Roanhorse creates something new there is a very creepy scene involving a destroyed town and the concept of newly created ghosts who are invisible to most but who cast a huge terrifying depression instantly on those they can step in the way of. For myself as a UK reader not overly familiar with Native American culture this was an interesting take on fantasy - certain familiar themes exist but all done differently and give me a fresh insight into an area I was not very aware of. Roanhorse uses Maggie’s voice to really paint his world it has depth and texture and importantly a sense of history - not just the centuries of the American west but also the decades these people have had to rebuild life in. It becomes apparent Maggie is part of a much larger series of events involving the newly returned deities.
What really won me over was Maggie. This is very much her story and it is a very interesting take on what exactly is a hero. Maggie when we met her is reluctant to use her powers as they awaken her worse impulses. She is shut off from her world and often cast out by the various factions trying to lead it. But this is a novel for Maggie working out her journey. How she is overly critical on herself should be contrasted with how Kai and others see her efforts to do the right thing for those in need and carry on despite the consequences. It’s a very powerful hero’s journey and still not complete by the time of the novel.
For what was a relatively short novel (compared to some fantasy) I found this a truly immersive and innovative read delivered by an author I think will have a lot to contribute to modern fantasy. Maggie and the dawning Sixth World I think could give us a refreshingly new perspective on epic fantasy. Visceral action; intriguing magic and mythology are combined with a standout character who I want to see develop even further. Strongly recommended and a strong entrant in this category.