I bought Rebecca Roanhorse‘s debut novel, Trail of Lightning, when it was just a pre-order announcement. When it arrived, it made its home in my To Be Read pile (which is, I am ashamed to admit, very big). When I packed for my Labor Day weekend getaway to the lake, I threw it in my bag. The optimist in me said I’d at least be able to start the book at some point. The pessimist in me said I’d probably not finish it, but I would at least have a good start into it.
I finished it in just over a day.
For some avid readers, a quick read like this is nothing. For me, it is miraculous. It takes a good blend of fantastic circumstances (or some very profound stubbornness) to finish a book in a day. I think being on vacation helped immensely, though; my only breaks from reading were to take a quick trip to the store, eat, and nap. I owe a lot of that to the world Roanhorse built.
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.
My Thoughts on Trail of Lightning:
The world has ended with Big Water; climate change has taken an irreversible turn for the worst resulting in global destruction. The humans that survived have fractured into camps and cities and no real government exists.
It is interesting to see a novel that takes the approach that climate change is the downfall of society. Not only have the polar caps melted and raised the water levels worldwide, there are other catastrophes: massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions spread across the globe, fracturing the land. There are no maps, but if there were, there wouldn’t be much left to recognize as the world we know. This is a very plausible future, which adds a little realistic anchoring to monster hunting Maggie Hoskie’s story.
Maggie’s story is set in The Sixth World – the Diné (Navajo) histories tell of the creation of life up to a modern time and place, called Fifth World, which is a physically different plane than the previous Worlds. Roanhorse’s novel builds on this and Big Water is the catastrophic event that destroys Fifth World to create Sixth World. It is the creation of Sixth World that allows the gods of yore to once again walk freely. I am not sure how true to Diné mythology Roanhorse stays, but I am quite certain her telling of the creation of Sixth World is interesting and the direction the Diné in the novel take is believable.
The Diné have insulated themselves from the rest of the world with a large wall. The irony of building a wall to keep people out of the Diné lands is not lost in the novel. It even becomes a barrier to keep some of the monsters of lore contained within the Diné homeland, proving that unintentional consequences always lurk in every major decision.
Native American Aspects
Speaking of the monsters, Diné stories are passed from generation to generation, teaching of creatures that should be respected and feared. Many act as the fables and fairy tales of Europe, except, in Trail of Lightning, the Diné monsters once again walk the earth. Maggie hunts them down, using powers she inherited from her ancestors through her clans — through her family.
A lot of Diné history is woven throughout the novel and I noticed a little overlap with the cautionary stories from my own mother; there was enough similarity that I knew to be wary of the gods and any gifts they may offer. For a parallel reference, think of the Fae and how their inability to speak in full-truths make them creatures that you should not make deals with and how the food they offer can trap you in their realm.
There are also signs and omens that creep into play; for many, a black cat crossing their path is bad luck, but for Maggie, it’s a coyote stalking across the road. Alternatively, being Kaccvlke (Tiger/Panther clan), having a mountain lion cross my path is a way for the spirit creature to keep me safe on my journey. Certain spirits can take various forms to interact with you, but it all depends on the entity in question and their intentions toward you. In Roanhorse’s world, this includes your relationship with the gods, since they have been known to make house calls and attempt some form of regular communication.
Clan associations also play another role in Roanhorse’s world. With the right kind of sight or magic, a person’s clan can be seen in their physical form. Maggie’s Medicine Man side kick, Kai Arviso, explains how clan kinship goes beyond just being able to tap into clan powers; in the metaphysical realm, typically where auras can be seen, there is a change in a person’s look. A Rabbit clan, for instance, can have elongated ears, while a clan of some cat type can have a tail. I loved this little addition, especially thinking of the visual kinship in the way that not everyone can see it. It makes me wonder what I would look like through the eyes of a Medicine Man or seer.
Relatable Human Problems
Monsters and gods aren’t the only thing Maggie has to deal with, either. Maggie was abandoned by her teacher, Neizghání, the god of lightning. She just wants to live her life in peace and quiet where she can mope and survive her day-to-day. She has made her life inside the wall as comfortable for herself as possible: she has her trailer and her truck and her dogs in the middle of nowhere, away from the rest of the population of Dinétah.
The Rez hasn’t changed much, except for the scarceness of gasoline for vehicles and the drought that, ironically, keeps Dinétah dry while the rest of the world is under water. Coffee is also a hard to come by commodity, making it worthy trade during big transactions. Maggie is all of us, wanting to lock the world away, hoard the coffee, and curl up with her dogs.
But her chosen life style in seclusion is interrupted by the introduction of a man from the city. Kai Arviso is interjected into her life by the man’s grandfather, further upsetting Maggie’s life; who needs a seemingly good-for-nothing alcoholic crashing on their couch?
Worth Your Time
Trail of Lightning is the first book in a series and Rebecca Roanhorse has built a wonderful world out of what is now and what could be later, blended beautifully with the lore of the Diné people. There are a few twists and not all of the monsters Maggie Hoskie meets are of the supernatural variety. The ending of the book left me wanting more and wondering how Maggie and all the people she met along the way will continue in the fight for humanity. With the gods interfering in many ways with humans and fighting power struggles within their own kind, how long will the Sixth World last?