All too often, science fiction and fantasy novels feature a world created entirely for and by white authors and readers. But in recent years, there’s been a push for greater visibility for authors of color — like Rebecca Roanhorse, whose debut novel Trail of Lightning comes out today. Trail of Lightning delivers a fast-paced urban fantasy adventure with an exciting set of characters and an enticing world that begs for further exploration.
In Trail of Lightning, civilization has faced drastic changes. Climate change has wrecked North America, creating a sea that covers most of the heartland. The resulting chaos killed millions of people and threw civilization into the Energy Wars, leaving behind a broken world rife with crime and poverty.
The book follows Maggie Hoskie, a Native American woman living in Dinétah, the traditional homeland of the Navajo tribe. Dinétah has been isolated from the rest of the chaotic world, protected by a series of vast, magical walls that roughly encompass parts of what had been New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. It’s experienced a full-blown resurgence of magical powers: ancient gods walk the earth and some individuals manifest special abilities known as clan powers.
Maggie is one of those individuals. When her grandmother was brutally attacked, she suddenly found herself imbued with strong, violent abilities that allowed her to slaughter the attackers. This attracted the attention of Naayééʼ Neizghání, a god known as “monster slayer,” who took Maggie under his wing after the attack.
Dinétah provides a safe world for its Native American inhabitants. But as Maggie points out, while they’re safe from the outside world, “sometimes the worst monsters are the ones within.”
Spoilers for the book ahead.
Trail of Lightning begins long after Maggie and Neizgháni have split up due to his concern over her bloodlust and and extreme violence. Now on her own, Maggie makes her way as a freelance monster hunter, tracking down magical creatures that threaten the relative safety of Dinétah. When something snatches a girl from a village, she sets out to kill it, only to discover that it’s a golem-like construct with an unknown creator.
As Maggie tries to trace the source of the attack, she picks up a partner named Kai Arviso, a handsome man who possesses strange powers of his own: healing and persuasion. Their hunt throws them into conflict with bands of mercenaries, corrupt police officers, and some of the gods that inhabit Dinétah. Eventually, Maggie discovers that the original attack was part of a much larger scheme, and Maggie has been unknowingly entangled in it for much of her life.
There’s a lot of information packed into Trail of Lightning, but Roanhorse’s breezy writing and slick plotting means that the pages fly by at a lightning pace. The novel is propelled by Maggie and Kai’s efforts to discover the origins of the monsters. They’re aided by tantalizing clues from the trickster Coyote, and their back-and-forth relationship crackles with romantic tension and good-natured banter. Their story races forward with each new revelation, coming to a cinematic conclusion that left me longing for the next installment. It’s the perfect book to pack for the beach or on a summer trip.
What really makes Roanhorse’s novel pop is the rich world of Dinétah. While it’s set in a relatively small geographical area, it feels vast and unexplored, with a network of towns and villages populated by a wide variety of inhabitants. A rich network of dive bars, clubs, and other establishments hint at a vivid underworld that could appear in many stories to come.
Roanhorse told The Barnes and Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog earlier this year that she didn’t see a lot of Native American representation in genre books, and she wanted to write a novel “where the landscape was filled with the places and the people that I knew from living on the rez,” and “where the gods and heroes were of North American Indigenous origin.”
That contrasts sharply with some better-known depictions of indigenous people in science fiction — like an episode of Stargate: SG-1 where the team visits a planet inhabited by the descendants of Native Americans, or Leia’s dialogue as Boushh in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (“Yáʼátʼééh, yáʼátʼééh” is Navajo.) These stories simply lift indigenous culture to create an exotic setting, ignoring the people who created it. Roanhorse’s novel tips the balance back in her own court: indigenous culture and people don’t take a backseat to the stories of white protagonists. Her novel provides a much-needed perspective to the larger canon of fantasy fiction.
While speculative fiction is full of apocalypses, Roanhorse has also pointed out that the end of the world is not just an abstract concept. Her ancestors literally faced a cataclysmic event during the colonization of North America. In the beginning of Trail of Lightning, Maggie notes that her people were prepared for the apocalypse that overtook the world: “This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth.”
It often feels like authors of color are expected to represent their entire race and culture, creating something that’s more didactic than imaginative. But Trail of Lightning is what I’d call a durable fantasy novel. It’s focused closely on the lives and decisions of its characters, not just the universe they inhabit. It’s intensely focused on delivering a fast, entertaining adventure, and it absolutely takes readers along for a fun ride. Fortunately, a sequel, Storm of Locusts, is due next April, picking up the adventures of Maggie and her allies as they work to save Dinétah.