Review: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse

Roanhorse’s debut novel takes the wheel from beloved monster-hunters like the Winchester Brothers, makes a fast break into a post-apocalyptic setting, and delivers on its promises.TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse (cover)

After the Energy Wars, the world below 3,500-feet is under the Big Water and what was once the Navajo reservation—now Diné—is one of humanity’s few strongholds. Legendary heroes and holy figures intermingle with the five-fingered mortals in this new Sixth World and a monster unfamiliar to all of them is threatening what little peace the people of Diné can muster. When no one else answers a town’s pleas for help, Maggie Hoskie drags herself and her weapons out of her trailer to assist. Even after her years fighting alongside the immortal Monsterslayer himself, though, she’s shocked at the carnage the new monster brings. Unwilling, unworthy, she seeks answers she’s not sure she wants to find. Along for the ride is attractive, flirtatious, peace-loving Kai Arviso, a medicine-man-in-training who is convinced he can convince Maggie to drop her guard and accept his friendship, eventually.

The banter, the intermittent gore, the self-assured and self-deprecating humor all reminded me of Supernatural at its best. What Trail of Lightning does better is navigating its main character’s troubled past in a linear fashion, right alongside the external conflict (e.g., monsters). There aren’t thirty-five I’m sorry, fifteen seasons in which to develop Maggie’s character, but there are the confines of Roanhorse’s chosen first-person, present-tense telling. Maggie might have no desire to revisit her past, to work through her emotional and psychological wounds, but even in her most resistant moments, she grows more and more sympathetic.

And Maggie has plenty history to run from. The novel’s horror is not confined to the physical present by any means. The trauma of the Big Water—when billions of people died—echoes in every life, in every hardship. Maggie’s experiences with more personal violence, past and present, haunt her. Roanhorse does not shy away from delving: scars are as powerful weapons as they are weaknesses.

This is true of more than just Maggie’s story. Though centuries removed from the European colonization of North America, Diné and its inhabitants still feel the trauma of genocide and displacement, of the often tense relationship between those living in Diné and those with authority over the lands beyond. But of course generational trauma would survive the Big Water, when oral and personal histories would become even more important, even more prized.

Roanhorse’s novel is fast-paced, full of heart, and a darn fun read. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my review is far from the only one you should read. As settler, a non-Indigenous woman, there is a lot of Maggie’s experience and culture that I cannot evaluate as more than an observer at a window. I am not well-versed in Navajo history, Diné religion, or even the immediate geography of the reservation. Roanhorse has received praise and censure for this novel from Diné reviewers, and the conversations they have had about her depiction of their beliefs and culture are essential. While I loved stepping beyond the confines of a Judeo-Christian mythos for this jaunt, it is not my place to say whether Roanhorse did justice to the figures she called on for her tale.

But as a reviewer, I can say this much: give me more. Give me more monster-hunters with the power of their POC/Indigenous ancestors. Give me more badass women confronting their past and refusing to be good for goodness’s sake. Give me more reflections on the problems people face now, wrapped in a delicious narrative. If we have more stories like this, we won’t need to worry about one novel or one writer’s work standing as a token for an entire culture. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Storm of Locusts, and to delving into other Native American and other indigenous speculative fiction in the near future.

On a personal note: I did purchase a copy of this novel for review, and I also read it via ebook on Overdrive. That’s also how I’ll be reading the sequel in coming weeks. Support your local libraries!

If you’re looking for other speculative fiction by Native American writers, Roanhorse recommended these books via Tor in 2018. This list from 2016 shares some recommendations and differs, too; it includes WALKING THE CLOUDS, which I read and very much enjoyed a few years ago.

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Review: JADE CITY and JADE WAR by Fonda Le

Lee’s Jade City and Jade War begin a family saga in which magic and loyalty are more treasured than life itself. In the sprawling, metropolitan capital of an island nation, family-run clans teeter on the edge of deadly conflict as the world seeks covert control of their cultural and magical wellspring: jade that offers the right bearers impossible physical power. A synthetic drug offers the addictive, dangerous power to anyone and the itch for jade begins to spread.  fondalee-e1564156868181

With the echoes of Kekon’s civil war dying with its elders, the nation’s younger generations are coming into power, and the No Peak Clan’s scions are no more ready for that burden than any of history’s princelings. Kaul Lanshinwan may have been raised as his grandfather’s successor, but rising to fill the shoes his late, larger-than-life, war-hero father left empty has already cost him dearly. His brother, Hiloshudon, on the other hand, may be too ready to be his brother’s right-hand-man, the clan’s street-enforcer. Together, they seem strong enough to face anything—except maybe all-out war with their rival clan over black-market jade sales and territorial encroachment. For that, they’ll need family. Long removed from clan business is their sister, Shaelinsan, who will not wear jade. The Kauls’ younger, adopted cousin, Emery Anden, cannot wear jade until he graduates. And for the Kauls, everything is written in terms of jade. Those that wear it can be powerful and vulnerable as corporeal gods. Those who cannot—or who choose not to—walk a tenuous line beside them. But the price of that jade will always be blood.

Calling the Green Bone Saga books “The Godfather with magic and kung fu” (as Lee has previously) is as succinct a summary as can be made, but talking only about how much fun these books are misses the craft that underpins them. The fight scenes are tense, physical, but don’t go over the head of someone without a strong awareness of martial arts. The characters’ competence hamstrings them as often as it helps, and their motivations are clear, personal, palpable. The twists are as gut-wrenching as the violent decisions the characters make to gain or maintain power. And the momentum carries straight through both books, and I rarely find book twos to be as strong as their companions. The family ties and addictive, consuming magic remind me of Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series, another sweeping epic albeit one with a far different setting. Combining the force of epic fantasy with familiar, urban set dressings and the gritty feel of a mob story just hit all the right notes for me. The sum of this: Lee sets the bar high for herself and others. Jade City and Jade War are page-turners that do not let up, and I expect nothing less of Jade Legacy when it arrives.

On a personal note: I do know Fonda, but happily purchased both books on my own with no incentive from Fonda or her publisher. I also listened to these books on Audible and very much enjoyed Andrew Kishino’s performance.

Review: THE LESSON by Cadwell Turnbull

In his debut novel, Turnbull staes an alien invasion in the US Virgin Islands, where extraterrestrial Ynaa join a long line of human colonizers determined to dominate all those that came before.

The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull
THE LESSON by Cadwell Turnbull

This is not as much a story of the terror of first contact, but life years later, when some St. Thomas residents have welcomed their new normal and others have reached a point of no return. Derrick dares to extend an olive branch. His young sister, Lee, just wants the distraction of the Ynaa to disappear. Their friend and neighbor Patrice and their grandmother Henrietta face separate crises of faith. Patrice’s mother Aubrey sees possibility while her father, Jackson, clings to scraps of his life before.

But continual unease begins to fester: the gruesome death of a human boy at the hands of a vengeful Ynaa rocks St. Thomas, and the Ynaa ambassador’s mediation feels increasingly futile. As individuals try to stem the tide of violence and terror in a nation so used to paying for its freedom with blood, what began for some as a clear mission for sovereignty warps beyond recognition.

Turnbull’s narrative is measured, calm, until it isn’t, a thundercloud too easily written off until it looms above you. The central, external conflict remains taut and ever-present, even as Turnbull explores the deeply individual experiences of each character with an awareness and love of place rooted in his own history there. What surfaces is an acknowledgement that some horrors only displace the ones that came before, a story of resistance, survival, and hope.

I, for one, am looking forward to more from Turnbull.

On a more personal note: I know Cadwell personally and did receive an advance copy of The Lesson from his publisher in exchange for an honest review. I wish I could say that I had a solid grounding in the history of St. Thomas before reading this book, but approached it armed only with my high school history education. Also, I did actually listen to this title, and very much enjoyed Janina Edwards’s and Ron Butler’s narration.

Review: LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

LabGirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
(Memoir; Knopf, 2016)

5/5 stars.

Jahren harmonizes the story of her life as a geobotanist with the story of trees. Undaunted by the solitary nature of lab work, she discovers that a host of other challenges stand in her way, from a nationwide funding drought to deeply entrenched sexism to her own, more personal battles. Despite it all, she and her unlikely partner-in-science, Bill tackle success, failure, birth, death, resentment, forgiveness, family, and self.

Writer-Brain: 5/5 stars. I picked this book up because of the uncanny similarities between Jahren’s story and the main character in my WIP. It used to be tough distancing myself from “source material,” if you want to call it that, but lately I’ve had a better time of it, so I wasn’t worried about accidentally conflating my 1869 botanist with a real-life scientist from today. As I’d hoped, Lab Girl gave me a chance to be in the head of scientist for a while–and one who shares a few characteristics with my main character at that. I have a few new ideas, a few points of confirmation: really from the writer side of things, this inspired me as I hoped it would.

Editor-Brain: 5/5 stars. Jahren’s structure is not to be copied likely. Telling two stories at once–one foreign to the reader and one more familiar–was certainly a risk and I’m willing to guess not a small undertaking for Jahren or her editor(s). The result was cohesive and compelling, and I think most readers will find the back-and-forth smooth and interesting. It adds some pauses for the narrative, reasserts Jahren’s expertise, and emphasizes the narrative threads so essential in carrying us through a career’s worth of stories. This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution; not every story would flourish with this kind of structure, even when shepherded with great care.

Also of note, there are a few places where Jahren uses tense changes to jump forward in time. I felt a touch jolted, but likely less than through other means of time change. It just occurred to me that it always felt a bit like a time-lapse video, which somehow I now appreciate better than before.

**LIGHT SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH**

Reader-Brain: 5/5 stars. Jahren’s writing is phenomenal and engaging and engrossing. I would have said this even before I spent a few chapters in part 3 trying not to cry. Jahren shares her pregnancy experience and the details are so frustrating and so real and so unsurprising (making it all the more enraging) that I just couldn’t remain unmoved and impartial. Some aspects of her experience certainly resonated with me on a personal level and I am sure will speak to anyone who has experienced the confluence of having a job and being pregnant.

Beyond this, though, Jahren’s story is universal in so many ways. Read this if you want to learn about the experience of a female scientist. Read this if you have felt alone against the world–and if you’ve had the joy of finding a kindred spirit against the odds. Read this if you are looking for a different kind of story arc, one that is not Jungian and yet echoes deeply across time, space, and species.

Et cetera: I checked my copy of Lab Girl out of the Ames Free LIbrary in Easton, MA, and loved it too much to return it before I’d finished it, despite it being a week late. If the next person in line for the book is reading this: #sorrynotsorry. It’s worth it and you’ll know it.

Review: IN THE COMPANY OF THE DEAD by Ciara Ballintyne

InTheCompanyOfTheDeadIn the Company of the Dead by Ciara Ballintyne
(Fantasy, Epic; Evolved Publishing, 2016)

4/5 Stars

The convoluted politics of men and gods traps a lone-wolf priestess of death and an exiled nobleman in a remote castle during a siege. Alliances are forged and broken in this springboard to an intriguing series.

**WARNING: Some content below is more spoilery than I’d prefer, but I can’t do justice to the book’s strengths without it. I don’t reveal actual plot points, but if you want to be taken for the full ride, skip to “Editor-Brain”**

Writer-Brain: 4/5 Stars. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the pacing, and I had some struggle with getting a sense for structure that might have helped pull things along, but Ballintyne did two things that took this book up a whole star.

First, she pulls Ellaeva back from the Inevitable Ledge of Mary Suedom. Ellaeva is the goddess of death’s Battle Priestess, the Left-Hand of Death, and she’s reasonably young and attractive and effective; the ledge is not hard to miss with that kind of character. It’s not a full yank backwards, and I’m sure some readers might disagree, but I think it’s reasonable to say she’s at least in a gray area by the end of the book. What happens in the sequel(s) will certainly affect the final verdict. In any case, Ellaeva doesn’t come off as so perfect a specimen that you secretly hate her for her goodness and glory and agency. Lyram, too, escapes Marty Studom and isn’t just there to make us worship Ellaeva; he’s got his own hangups and faults and he faces a few consequences that keep him in the clear.

Second, Ballintyne lies–to the readers and her characters. It happens once, early, and big. It’s not easy to do in this kind of fantasy without it feeling totally like a cop-out, easy-answer. When the lie was revealed, though, I realized that I was more interested to see where things would go. My note in the ebook was “so this is where Book 2 starts.” So somewhere, amid the things that slowed me down and kept me thinking too hard to really fly effortlessly through the read, Bellintyne had me hooked. If she hadn’t, the big reveal might have sent me running.

Editor-Brain: 3/5 Stars. There were a few places where dialogue and/or exposition just wasn’t as tight as I’d have liked. This is the problem with  being an editor who reads (or a reader who edits): I get caught up in details that affect the telling of the story and not the story itself. This runs from saying the same thing two different ways in a few paragraphs to words or sentences that could be cut entirely without changing meaning. Will this disturb most readers? Likely no. But it caught me often enough that I couldn’t say nothing.

Reader-Brain: 4/5 Stars. So I’m just going to say that I requested this book knowing that I’m not the biggest fan of books set amid an ongoing war/battle with little to no plot relief. I chose it because I’ve never read a siege book before and wanted to see how I felt about it. And I think it was a good discovery. Not so much fighting or going on about troop positioning or maneuvers: the characters had to be resourceful, swift, and strategic. There were consequences to losing people, no matter how little they mattered to the plot, something I’d argue didn’t happen in some other war-centric epic fantasies I’ve read. And, as I said above, Ballintyne threw me for a loop I enjoyed; I’m putting book 2 on my reading list for 2017.

Disclaimer: I recieved a free digital ARC of this title from Evolved via NetGalley.

Review: SIGNAL TO NOISE by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

SignaltoNoiseSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
(Fantasy, Urban; Solaris 2015)

4/5 Stars.

In 1988, three teenagers from Mexico City discover that they can cast spells using magic. In 2009, one of them returns home after twenty years and confronts the messes they made. So much heart in this book, and as Meche’s grandmother says, “Magic will break your heart.”

Writer-Brain: 4.5/5 stars. I loved Moreno-Garcia’s worldbuilding tactics. There’s something very modern-day about looking at magic with a scientific eye as Meche does. She’s a programmer and she expects that magic, if it obeys laws, can be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method. The discovery process alone was an effective way to highlight how mature these kids are–not to mention the adapting they’ve done to the curveballs life has thrown at them in their less-than-lovely neighborhood in Mexico City. But the process also answers readers’ questions, even if they didn’t realize they had them. There’s quite a bit of mystery to the magic, but Moreno-Garcia offers just enough satisfying answers that readers can feel as confident in what can and can’t happen as Meche and her friends do.

One thing that troubled my Writer-Brain throughout was Daniela’s character. She felt so flat for such a long time, and I’m not sure she ever really rounded out. She feels like a necessary third wheel who is there do be shaped by the action and to react to the other characters. But then I started wondering if that was because Meche is rather self-involved and mostly dismisses Daniela in their teen years. Is it a function of the narrator or a function of the writer? A feature or a bug, if you will? I think I’d actually need to read this again to be sure of my personal answer. I think I may write a post on this sometime…

Editor-Brain: 4/5 stars. In several places throughout the book, a phrase or sentence felt very stilted. This was odd, to me, given the grace of the rest of the prose. And while I understood that everyone was speaking Spanish, I had a tough time feeling that. At one point, a character refers to the phrase “I love you” as being three words long–but in Spanish, the direct translation is two words long. It just made me stop and rethink things too much. I’m not sure if all of this is just Moren0-Garcia’s style, the consequences of writing about Spanish in English, or the effects of an editorial decision. I admit that I haven’t read enough novels set in Spanish-speaking locales nor am I proficient enough in the language to speak expertly, but it pulled me out of the flow of the story and I felt the questions needed to be raised.

Reader-Brain: 5/5 stars. The experience was engrossing. I found myself wanting to share bits with my husband often–a habit he tolerates because he loves me. As my summary hints, a great deal of this hurt my heart. Every character is so well-intentioned, but they’re so human and the consequences are disturbingly reasonable. If this could happen, I feel like it would happen. I definitely want to reread this after a while, peel back the layers again, and see what I find the next time. And that, alone, is a good recommendation from me.

Et cetera: I found it really interesting to compare the voice of this novel to that of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, which I also recently read. And I’m looking forward to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s next novel, Certain Dark Things (complete with contest for a free copy!).

Review: MASKS AND SHADOWS by Stephanie Burgis

MasksandShadowsMasks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
(Historical Fantasy; Pyr 2016)

4/5 Stars

Several intriguing guest arrive at opulent Esterháza in 1779 and take their places in a court drama only heightened by a dark presence that threatens them all. This might be closer to “historical horror,” but it didn’t creep me out exactly. Keep a lookout for actual people and events.

Writer Brain: 4/5 Stars. Good solid writing, fun characters, with twists and turns both expected and unexpected. It’s tough to craft a story around a big reveal–in this case, people dying in grotesque ways with the actual nature of the killer being the unknown–without giving the reader a slight pang of disappointment when it happens. The reveal closes doors and, if you’ve got an inventive reader, nixes all sorts of possibilities they might have been gunning for. Not that it can’t be done really well, but I was slightly disappointed, not because Burgis’s killer isn’t a great idea, but because I’d grown a bit attached to the one I’d conjured up.

Huge props to Burgis for dealing with some gender identity issues here (a primary cast member is a musico/castrati) and doing so with a deft nod to both historical perspectives and more modern views.

Editor Brain: 5/5 Stars. I really enjoyed what seemed like reverse engineering when it came to the plot. The climactic event happened in real life, but Burgis gave it a fantastic/horroresque twist and even mechanisms for being recast as mundane in history books. It seems like a great way to launch into a historic fantasy title. It’s tough for several reasons. In this technique, you acquire a cast of characters that may be rather immutable depending on how well-documented your slice of history is and how well-known your characters are. You have a set timeline, a set framework of technology and beliefs, and a set setting. But all of these things can be broken, flouted, or tweaked if you buy yourself enough good-will with your readers. Maybe this means giving them something really awesome to cling to or reasoning logical enough to change their perspective. This is especially necessary, I find, when introducing the fantastic element(s), whatever they are. They may or may not unseat the rest of your historical constructs, but I’ve always found that the more care the writer takes with this building of trust, the better the result is. And I think Burgis manages this well.

Reader Brain: 4/5 Stars. I enjoyed this one. It was a good fun read. The multiple close-3rd-person POVs didn’t switch off so much that they were annoying and the cast was just big enough to give good perspective on what was going on. And there wasn’t a ton of overlap in the more active scenes, which I vastly prefer. I was disappointed, at first, that Charlotte’s main plot feels like so much of a romance, but I was delighted at the depth that Burgis brought to it in the end. But some of the side characters were rather flat; it made for a concise tale, but left me wanting a bit more nuance around the edges. And though the [spoiler] didn’t scare me outright or match my suspicions, it did some stuff I definitely didn’t expect. So, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.

Disclaimer: I received a free digital ARC of this title from Pyr via Edelweiss.