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Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse4 stars
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The best way to take a genre that’s (arguably) moribund and creatively exhausted and give it a whole new lease on life is to bring it stories told from new perspectives that have been woefully underrepresented in fantastic fiction for far too long. What Silvia Moreno-Garcia did for vampire fiction in Certain Dark Things, Nebula winner Rebecca Roanhorse does for urban fantasy in Trail of Lightning, a richly textured and often intensely violent action-adventure that launches her debut series, The Sixth World.

Yes, it’s a bit unfair to saddle Trail of Lightning with the UF label, when the story draws inspiration just as heavily from post-apocalyptic SF. Roanhorse’s prose stylings, the tropes that the book chooses both to employ and subvert are the main things that make Trail read like urban fantasy. What lifts this book well above any simplistic genre taxonomy is that it’s a Native American saga through and through. Perhaps a more fitting label would be post-urban fantasy. The results are truly transformative, not just a case of putting old wine into a new bottle.

The future here is one in which most of the civilized world has suffered such severe climate change that fully two-thirds of the North American land mass, not just hapless coastal cities like Miami and New York, has ended up submerged. This event has triggered the onset of the Sixth World, allowing the gods and monsters and ancient magics of Native American tradition to once again walk the earth.

The people of the Dinétah, or Navajo, now live in territory protected from external chaos and lawlessness, but not from the monsters within, by a massive preternatural wall raised by the gods. (That may be the book’s most caustic little nugget of political satire.) Maggie Hoskie is a Monsterslayer, a young Diné woman whose clan powers, which manifest as a spectacular talent for ultraviolence, awakened in her adolescence during a terrible event that befell her family. This in turn led Maggie to be taken in by Naayéé’ Neizghání, an immortal who trains her in her fighting skills, and loves her, until the day he fears the evil that they fight together may have developed an influence over her, and he abandons her. As the story opens, Maggie lives alone, isolated, a hot mess of trust and abandonment issues, and she only reluctantly takes a job to rescue a young girl abducted by a monster. The rescue does not go as planned, and Maggie discovers that a new kind of monster, golems created through witchcraft, may be plaguing the Diné.

Maggie is joined in her quest for the witch responsible for these beasts by hunky medicine man Kai Arviso, whose own clan powers include accelerated healing and persuasion. Along the way, they’ll be led — or perhaps misled — by the trickster god Coyote, who naturally knows much about unfolding events but sees fit to string Maggie and Kai along to suit his own ends.

Roanhorse’s world here, which foregrounds indigenous culture right down to the tiniest details (like the recordings of Diné oral history that Kai discovers in their investigation — those are a real thing), is exceptionally vivid and immersive, and strange in all the right ways when it needs to be. Widely compared to Mad Max, I personally found the experience of this story not unlike playing a Fallout game, with its gangs of lawless mercenaries, corrupt authorities, and ramshackle settlements scattered across a desert landscape that straddles the line between reality and something like a dream world in widescreen.

The emotional core of the tale is Maggie, which is quite a feat when you consider that badass urban fantasy heroines with issues and itchy trigger fingers are a dime a dozen. I have to admit, I did roll my eyes a little bit at the beginning, with its bog-standard first-person, present-tense narration, and Maggie introducing herself as “the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags.”

But as the story unfolds, Roanhorse gives Maggie convincing nuance, creating a woman who is a lifelong survivor of multiple deep emotional traumas, none of which she’s fully healed from. In some instances, you could say she’s the architect of her own troubles. But in others, her inability to mend all her broken pieces feels like it’s coming from a place of emotional truth. Roanhorse keeps certain situations not fully explained — such as the reason the Law Dogs have such a seething hatred of her — and it has the effect of making us believe Maggie is a real person with with an involved past that’s outside the scope of the present story. And as Trail of Lightning builds to what is a truly intense climax, Maggie’s going to learn some more things about her past she might wish she hadn’t.

As her partner in all this, Kai has layers of his own. I genuinely dislike it when fantasy novels simply insert a romantic ship in obligatory fashion, and urban fantasy is nothing if not guilty of that. Thankfully, Kai isn’t there just to be a love interest, and I was surprised to find myself feeling quite happy for Maggie and Kai when they finally did, very late in the book, explore that level of closeness with each other. (Relax, you know this isn’t a spoiler.) Because it felt earned, not obligatory, like two people who have been through a series of deadly and terrifying ordeals, one of them still not entirely feeling safe with the whole idea of trust and emotional vulnerability, allowing themselves to seek solace from each other. When you’ve read as many stories as I have where there’s no reason relevant to the narrative to have the hero and heroine end up in a clinch, but they do anyway, just because, it’s refreshing to see this element handled properly.

Trail of Lightning is tense, just about perfectly paced, and has fight scenes so gloriously brutal they’d be at home in a movie like The Raid. It’s a book that comes at you like an angry rattlesnake — except in an entertaining way. There’s enormous room for Rebecca Roanhorse to build upon what she’s started here. It’s true that many, many books that arrive on a wave of pre-release hype end up disappointing to one degree or another. But if you’re willing to follow Trail of Lightning, I think you’ll agree, this one’s the real deal.

Followed by Storm of Locusts.