Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Dinétah After the Apocalype: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

I loved Rebecca Roanhorse's Hugo-winning short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience," so I was really looking forward to seeing what she did with a novel, which is this year a Hugo finalist.  While I can't say I liked Trail of Lightning as much as the previous short story, it's definitely an interesting read.

The first thing to note is that Trail of Lightning combines three things that may not have been combined before: Diné-inspired fantasy, urban fantasy, and post-apocalyptic science fiction.  For the most part, it works pretty well.  I was pulled into the book more than I expected, especially since I'm generally not the biggest fan of urban fantasy (I have only read one of the Dresden books, which I thought was fun, but haven't felt the need to read more ... yeah, I know, I'm a terrible person).

Let's talk about the three elements and how they interacted and where they maybe didn't work so well.

I am not Diné. I did once drive through Dinétah when I lived in New Mexico, but I can't claim anything more than rudimentary knowledge of the culture, so I won't comment on whether Roanhorse gets that "right" in any sense.  There are some Diné and other Native people who have criticized Roanhorse (see here for some discussion and examples), but I will leave that controversy to the side for now.

As a non-Native reader, I thought the use of Diné concepts in the world building worked really well, purely in a fantastic/science fictional sense (leaving aside again whether it gets things right and other issues).  I especially liked the clan powers and Coyote.  Mainstream sci-fi and fantasy are finally starting to move beyond just European cultures, and I'm all for it.

Moving to the urban fantasy element, I think this is where Roanhorse plays it most safe (although technically I suppose this is "rural fantasy").  We have a pretty standard emotionally-distant-but-badasss urban fantasy protagonist, doing pretty standard urban fantasy monsterslaying and mystery-solving, with a pretty standard urban fantasy love interest that she initially dislikes.  For all the cool world building, the protagonist and plot are pretty standard stuff, and the plot started to unravel a bit for me toward the end.  As someone who's not really a fan of most urban fantasy, this is where the book was least interesting to me, but your mileage may vary.

The post-apocalyptic element was much more interesting.  In this near future (maybe a few decades, maybe less?), climate change has caused most of the United States to flood, leaving Diné lands relatively unscathed.  Being in the high desert has its advantages.  They even, in what has to be a bit of a joke on Roanhorse's part, build a wall to keep out everyone else.  In something of a Shadowrun-type turn, all the old Diné beliefs come to life, gods, monsters, and all.  The characters talk about far off Albuquerque as "The Burque," which is based on a real nickname for the city today, although in the future Albuquerque is a much harsher place than the place I lived several years ago.  All of this brings up an interesting point about how climate change may affect people in different areas differently.  "We" often talk about how climate change is going to affect "us," but maybe we should think more about who "we" are and where "we" are.

Another interesting element of the book is the extent to which Maggie, the protagonist, worries about whether she is actually a monster, given her propensity for violence.  Is she destined to a one-dimensional life of monsterslaying by her clan powers?  Or can she choose to have a more multidimensional life, taking up tradition without being controlled by it?

So, there's a lot to love about this novel.  Urban fantasy fans will probably like it even more than I did, but I'm still interested to see what Roanhorse does next.

See my Goodreads review.

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