Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One cannot emphasize how important this book is in terms of representation in dystopian/urban fantasy literature. It is one the few UF novels set in America I’ve read where all the characters are poc. L. A. Banks’ work is the only other work that springs readily to mind. It is the only one I’ve read where the characters are all Native American/Indigenous/First Peoples.
I am quite well aware that my perspective is limited, that there are books I am either forgetting or don’t know about. Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. Also note, I am taking about characters, not authors. This book also had a big PR push as well.
What is more, Roanhorse’s characters are Diné in all the authentic ways. Language and terms are used in ways that a native speaker would use them. Don’t worry, meaning is revealed but it is down in a way that feels natural as opposed to an info dump. There are references to water deliveries as well as the classism(?) that exists between city and non-city dwellers (urban vs. rez). What is more important is that race is not used as a shortcut for a tragic past or romantic trauma (i.e. Anita Blake who really only brings up being half Hispanic when explaining why a boyfriend’s mother didn’t like her, and then that’s it). There is dealing with racism and stereotypes.
This also means that this book carries quite a bit on its metaphorical shoulders, fairly or unfairly.
Thankfully, it carries the unfair load quite well.
It’s true and fair to say that Maggie, the heroine, suffers from the problems that exist in all too many UF and dystopian novels of late. She has a tragic past, she doesn’t trust people (but mostly men), she is shut off, she isn’t “girly”, and she is special in terms of power. She also doesn’t think that she is good looking (though to be fair, not every man in the book lusts after her, so this doesn’t annoy me at all in this book). She also is the only woman of name for over 150 pages of the book. She is the only woman of power until the last quarter of book, and the other women or girls are either victims, non-fighters, or get hurt. There is a slight shift in this at the end that I loved (and the book does technically pass the Bechdel test), but overall, outside of race, Maggie is very much like every other UF heroine you can think of.
This doesn’t mean that she is a bad character or unbelievable. Roanhorse is not the only author who makes such a standard character work either (think Armstrong’s Elena or Vaughn’s Kitty) and like those other UF/dystopia series that stand out, Roanhorse expands on the standard.
It is also possible that we are to see the woman victims as symbolical of the cold hard fact that Native American women are most at risk for rape, sexual assault, and murder (domestic violence is 10 times higher, 1 in 3 Native American women are raped, Native American women are murder at least 10 times the national average in some places. Check out Indianlaw.org among other websites). I think this symbolical view is especially true with the opening sequence of the book, considering the lack of response from society and government to that fact.
The book works for a few seemingly simple reasons. The first is that the world building is absolutely wonderfully down. Not only does Roanhorse create a believable world, references are made to today’s events (such as Trump’s wall). Roanhorse’s writing carries you there. The use of Native American belief and folklore is well done. The book is not overcrowded with an overpopulation of magical creatures and various vampires and weres (honesty, I really want a book about a were slug. I swear that is the only were we haven’t seen yet). There are no vampire politics (thank god). The use of clan powers is wonderful and brilliant. What I particularly enjoyed was Maggie’s relationship to her own powers. The descriptions are vivid and the characters, in particular Maggie and Kai, totally believable.
More importantly, as other reviewers have pointed out, this is one of the few fantasy novels where a tragic heroine actually heals. In part, this is because of Kai, a medicine man (and something a bit more that isn’t that big of a reveal. I have theories about book 2 as well), but also because Maggie herself wants to heal. That’s why you root for her. She doesn’t want to be the biggest bad ass. She wants to be the best Maggie, or at least a whole Maggie or better Maggie that she can be (Maggie’s views and relationship to her clan powers is also a factor here. Nicely done too). Very few authors in UF have their heroines actually heal or learn. There might be lip service to the idea in some UF fiction, but you never really see it. Again, Armstrong’s Elena and Vaughn’s Kitty are two characters who break this trend, and we see them healing. I enjoy and love both Women of the Otherworld and the Kitty Books, but Roanhorse does the emotional and mentally healing much better. She truly does. We know that Maggie has healed not simply by how she opens herself up to Kai, but also though little descriptive touches. It is these touches that make it more realistic.
Kai also gets a mention for not being the abusive douche bag that we are suppose to find romantic. He is as just a real character as Maggie, with his own wants, needs, fears, and problems. The relationship that develops between the two does not feel forced and rings true. He also is a balance for the view of “girly” that Maggie has. To often in books, the central heroine is seen as better than the other women because she does not like hair and make-up. Maggie doesn’t like a certain hairstyle it is true, but her objection has to do with the practicality of the style. Kai and a few other characters not only balance Maggie’s dismissal of looks and presentation but challenge her view. Additionally, even though Maggie is the heroine, she needs the other characters to succeed. This isn’t super woman saves everyone type of heroine.
It’s true it is not a perfect book. But it is a damn fine debut. Can’t wait for the second installment.
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