Rating: 7.9 (out of 10)
Early in Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut urban fantasy novel Trail of Lightning, protagonist Maggie Hoskie is talking to a couple whose daughter was stolen by a monster. The girl’s mother asks Maggie if she can save their child. Maggie responds only that she can find her, a distinction the desperate and grieving woman recognizes. Our first impression of Maggie is of a woman who believes that once evil touches you, it gets inside you and stays there. And it isn’t something Maggie just believes about little girls who get stolen by monsters – she believes it about herself.
Plotting is never the main attraction in urban fantasy. Not that good storytelling isn’t important; it most definitely is. But the setting is the hook that draws you in, and the protagonist is the spark that lights the fire. Roanhorse nails both of those things with a vengeance. Trail of Lightning is set entirely in Dinétah, the Navajo Nation reborn after a combination of ecological catastrophe and mass energy crises caused mass flooding and worldwide collapse. The devastation ushered in the Sixth World, the return of the gods and monsters and heroes of Navajo legend to the mortal world. For Maggie, it activated clan powers deep in her lineage that make her Living Arrow, or, really good at killing.
When Trail of Lightning starts, golem-like monsters are terrorizing families throughout Dinétah, and Maggie is on the hunt for the witch responsible for creating them. Grandpa Tah, an adoptive father figure for Maggie, thinks she needs a partner and hooks her up with his grandson Kai. At first, Maggie is downright hostile to the idea of having a partner, but Kai seems to have an uncanny talent for persuasion and soon proves himself useful. But before they can make any headway, the trickster god Ma’ii, and old “frenemy” of Maggie’s, shows up with a side quest for Maggie and Kai, a seemingly unrelated ploy for Maggie’s attention that does, however, provide her with some important tools for achieving her goal.
The main story of Trail of Lightning comes to a satisfying enough conclusion, though its digressions occasionally disrupt the novel’s pacing, and the answers just more or less fall into Maggie’s lap at the end. Where it does succeed brilliantly, however, is in drawing the reader deeper into the mythology of the Sixth World, and into Maggie’s fascinating and blood-drenched backstory – her grandmother’s death at the hands of a witch, her toxic relationship with the legendary, immortal monsterslayer Neizghání. The novel became more a process of discovery for me, of Roanhorse’s world and the people who inhabit it, one that mines a rich vein of emotional and visceral impact and left me wanting more.