Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is a Hugo Awards finalist for best novel. In the wake of a climate catastrophe most of the world has drowned, but the former Navajo reservation, now dubbed Dinétah, has survived. It appears that the tumultuous flooding has summoned the Native American legends of yore, bringing with them gods, heroes, tricksters, and of course, monsters. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter gifted with clan powers who seeks to foil a scheme of witchcraft which threatens her homeland. Along the way, she reluctantly enlists the help of a young, unconventional medicine man and a trickster Coyote with his own agenda, eventually realizing that she must confront her past if she wants to defeat the monsters she faces.
The premise reminded me a bit of Sean Stewart’s Resurrection Man books, where magic returns to the earth in the wake of the horrors of WWII (golems appear in concentration camps, etc…), though Trail of Lightning obviously updates the catalyst to climate change and the magic to Native American folklore.
My only previous experience with Roanhorse’s work was her Hugo Award winning short story of yesteryear, Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™. In that story, a guy runs a VR simulation of Native American vision quests for customers, but he eschews the authentic experience in favor of Hollywood-style pap and eventually faces consequences. So I should say that as a white man who speaks with forked tongue, it’s probably not my place to comment on the authenticity of the folklore in Trail of Lightning, not to mention the tribal politics, but it does indeed feel accurate and accessible without appearing to be dumbed-down. Roanhorse knows her stuff, and uses it in service of the story.
Beyond the Native American themes, the story is a pretty straightforward Hero’s Journey style adventure with the requisite spins and twists towards the end of the novel, which I must admit did manage to surprise me a couple of times. While this is the sort of thing we’ve seen countless times before, it’s well executed and entertaining, short and sweet, with some added complexity from the somewhat unique setting. Roanhorse’s style is more prosaic and approachable, making this more of a page turning experience than a lot of Hugo nominees manage.
As this is only the second book I’ve read from the Hugo shortlist, it’s hard to say where it will fall, but I suspect it will teeter towards the middle of the pack. Obviously this could change as I make my way through the rest of the nominees, but for now, I’ll just say that I found it quite enjoyable and am happy that I read it.