Jul 22 2019

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning delivers perfectly cromulent action and adventure in the Navajo corner of a world that has suffered a partly supernatural climate apocalypse. Maggie, the book’s first-person narrator, is a badass. Trained by a near-god in the arts of combat, she adds magical powers of speed and killing prowess, powers drawn from her Navajo clan lineage. Not every Navajo has clan powers, but many of the characters in an action adventure story do. The title page of Trail of Lightning announces that it is the first book in a series called The Sixth World, so obviously not every conflict that is set up in this book will be resolved in its pages.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Maggie is also a mess, as she tells readers numerous times. Neizgháni, the Monsterslayer, took her on as his apprentice. He came to her at the scene of a bloody crime, when the grandmother who had raised her had been killed, strung up, and partly butchered. A similar fate awaited her before Neizgháni’s intervention. After the rescue, he took her away from the human world for a while to train her. Is it any wonder that she gave her heart to him, that she is lost and despairing when the novel opens a year or so after he has left her? Well, it’s not a surprise, but it isn’t healthy, as Maggie admits.

In the world of Trail of Lightning, the fifth world — the mundane one in which the book’s readers still live — gave way to the sixth at an unspecified date but probably some time in the early 2020s. Climate change, among other things, provided the opening for the greater beings of Navajo lore to usher out the old age and bring in the new with a flood of Biblical proportions that has left two thirds of North America underwater. Navajo lands are protected by a massive Wall that fully encircles their territory. It’s clearly supernatural; for instance, its southern quadrant is made entirely of turquoise. Civilization has broken down to Mad Max levels. Maggie drives a 1972 truck modified to run on high-spirit alcohol. She has a shotgun, a Glock, and various knives, some made of obsidian. Other characters have motorcycles and improvised flamethrowers, while still others have AR-15 rifles. No mention is made of the industrial base necessary to produce cars and guns because this is not that kind of a book.

Instead, it’s the kind of book in which the hero digs herself ever deeper into trouble, but with plenty of fights and other violent encounters along the way. The opening sequence concerns a monster that has snatched a young teen girl from her village and carried her into the surrounding hills, presumably for nefarious ends. I’m not sure how the village people had enough time to try other options, decide to hire Maggie, send a motorcycle-mounted messenger to find her, get her to the town hall, negotiate with her, and send her out into the wilds before the zombie-like monster had time to gnaw the girl to the point of serious injury (though not death), but I am prepared to suspend disbelief at the start of a story.

Coyote turns up later, and Maggie sometimes calls him by his Navajo name of Ma’ii. She says they’re frenemies. He talks her into promising to complete a quest for him, but it’s more than likely that he is trying to con her. By the end of Trail of Lightning, I wasn’t sure if the quest was an item put off until later books of the Sixth World, or if Coyote’s serious indisposition (which I can’t think is permanent) makes Maggie’s promise moot.

Anyway, it’s a fast-paced tale of action and monsters and a bit of betrayal here and there. The mix of Mad Max and Navajo tradition is interesting; it’s not a run-of-the-mill setting at any rate. There’s obviously more to come of the Sixth World, and it could be fun.

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