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: 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.