The world we know is gone, remade by climate change. The Diné, who we formerly referred to as the Navajo, saw the end of the world approaching and protected themselves. They constructed four 50-foot walls: one turquoise, one white shell, one pearlescent abalone, and one of jet to surround the Dinétah, and what was once their reservation. Now it is their world, and within those walls magic has returned, along with the Diné gods and monsters. And when there are monsters, you need a monster slayer. You need Maggie Hoskie.
Maggie, a young orphan who was forced to watch as her grandmother was ruthlessly killed in front of her, is blessed, or cursed, with the clan powers of Honágháahnii and K’aahanáanii, which give her superhuman speed, agility and strength to battle threats of a supernatural nature. Maggie has become the mercenary monster slayer within the Dinétah. When she is hired to recover a young girl kidnapped by an unknown creature, Maggie has no problem tracking or dispatching the abomination. But she realizes that it is no typical monster. It is something that was created using powerful, dark magic, and the person behind this thing must be stopped before they can make more. As she sets out to track down those responsible, she agrees, against her better judgment, to work with a young, new medicine man named Kai. Kai is powerful, but he is nothing like Maggie in style or temperament. He also has more than his own share of secrets. Will these two be able to work together long enough to stop whoever is threatening what is left of their world?
In Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse creates a marvelous and complex new world from the ruins of our own, in combination with the traditional beliefs of the Diné. Roanhorse’s use of Diné lore in a fantasy novel is fascinating and welcome. So many Urban Fantasy novels set in the US have their basis in the Fey/Fairies, which makes sense in novels with a European setting, and less so in stories set in North America. Roanhorse addresses this directly by using the traditions of North American natives as the basis for her magic. The result is a complicated world that is incredibly compact, filled with the remnants and reminders of the world before “the Big Water.” Faced with their new reality, the Diné begin, once again, to rely upon ancient beliefs and customs. They are also forced to invent new ways to fill in the gaps created by technologies that have recently ceased functioning, and resources that are no longer widely available.
Roanhorse’s characters are wonderfully complex. This is particularly true of Maggie. While she is a skilled hunter and combatant, she is far less adept when navigating the mundane day-to-day interactions required to survive in a relatively small community, especially one from which she cannot leave!. She is also dealing with the emotional trauma of witnessing her grandmother’s death, and her own abandonment by her parents and her mentor. The result is a strong, competent woman with admirable strengths, relatable shortcomings, a quick wit and a sharp tongue--making her a compelling female protagonist. Kai and the other supporting characters are equally interesting, but are a bit less fleshed out in this story, which clearly belongs to Maggie. There are hints at what may be lying beneath their surfaces and revealed in upcoming additions to the series.
Trail of Lightning is a powerful, page-turning fantasy, filled with action and adventure that will surprise readers, and everything is infused with magic, wonder and a strong undercurrent of the malevolence lurking beneath the surface. This is Roanhorse’s first novel, after being nominated for a Hugo and winning a Nebula in 2017 for her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”. She is clearly a new fantasy author to watch.