Book Review: Trail of Lighting by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lighting is yet another highly praised title from Rebecca Roanhorse.  After universal acclaim for her short story in 2018, when she took home the Hugo, Nebula and a few other awards, this book got nominated for the Best novel Hugo Award of 2019.  And it very well may have a chance, given the trends of recent years.  The book, which features a monster huntress in a post-apocalyptic Native American reservation, is a solidly written, low-key affair which provides for a pleasant reading.

I first heard of Trail of Lighting when I listened to The Skiffy and Fanty Show podcast, and I felt it was billed as an action-oriented monster hunting book.  I was surprised at that, as monster hunters are a dime a dozen these days and don’t get much recognition.  The Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia is very well known and sets the modern standard for monster hunting stories.  In addition, I am especially partial to the John Sinclair series by Jason Dark, which counts over 2000 novellas and novelettes at this point.  Too bad they are all in German, and I haven’t seen an English translation yet.  As such, a new monster hunting series should have been relegated to the “guilty pleasure”, and not “award nominated” section.  I was thus very pleasantly surprised when Trail of Lighting turned out to fall into the more introspective ancient-mythology-come-to-life genre that had Zelazny’s And Call Me Conrad vibe all over it.

The story takes place in a Native American reservation in an undetermined future.  A major catastrophe had struck the continent, with much of the United States flooded, and the rest struggling to secure drinking water.  A byproduct of this catastrophe was the return of magic into the world.  The inhabitants of the reservation used magic to erect nearly impenetrable walls around them, isolating themselves from the rest of the world, save for controlled entrances.  Monsters, gods and demigods appeared.  Each family, or clan, gained a special power, akin to the racial powers in the Elder Scrolls video game series.  Members of one clan can find water, others gain very acute hearing, and Maggie, our protagonist, is good at killing.

The story starts with Maggie being hired to find a little girl kidnapped by a monster.  She hunts the monster down, and after a lengthy fight kills it.  She’s too late to save the girl, though.  She takes the monster’s head to a local shaman, who introduces her to his grandson named Kai, a healer in training, and they reluctantly pair to hunt the monster’s creator.  Maggie is tough as nails, but also emotionally damaged, still recovering from the loss of her mentor, a monster-slaying demigod, who left her.  Mags and Kai meet up with another mythical entity, the god Coyote, who agrees to help them on their quest in exchange for a service.  They later find out the Coyote tricked them when Maggie is pulled into a fight to the death against her mentor, and even though she survives she is further manipulated into killing him later in the story.  She discovers the manipulation too late, ends up killing Coyote and Kay, and incapacitating her former mentor.

This, in short, covers most of the action of the book.  Despite a monster-hunting theme, most of the story reads like a road trip, where the main protagonists prefer to talk their way out of trouble, grow emotionally closer together and make friends and enemies along the way.  They meet lots of strange and sometimes not entirely human characters.  The worldbuilding is superb, and the entire story – travels with occasional bursts of action – reminded me of And Call me Conrad by Roger Zelazny, which famously co-won the Best Novel Hugo alongside Frank Herbert’s Dune.  However, instead of Greek mythology we get Native American mythology.  So instead of familiar territory for me, I was left with the unknown, which wasn’t necessarily bad, save for the fact that I couldn’t pronounce, much less remember, many of the monster and deity names.

I liked the read very much.  There was never the notion that the main protagonist was in any serious danger, due to the first-person present tense narration, and I never got attached to others enough to feel worried about them.  As a result, I wasn’t stressed out about what may happen to the characters.  The action was sporadic, and I was more interested in the worldbuilding and seeing how the story played out than rooting for one or the other side to win a final confrontation.  This provided for a very pleasant evening reading.

Unfortunately, two things somewhat spoiled the book for me.  I had an issue with Maggie, the narrator and main protagonist.  She comes across as an asshole.  Not a bad person per se, but maybe because of her emotional baggage she is actively trying to piss everyone off.  I’m the kind of a reader who wants to identify with or look up to the protagonist, and not look down on her as being morally inferior.  This is just my subjective taste, though, and in fact, Maggie’s character quality may be what pushes the book over the finish and gives it the Hugo award.  Of the last five Hugo winners, four portrayed similar characters, and the fifth one, The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, had a mix of clueless and asshole protagonists.  So, obviously, having unlikable characters is the prevailing fashion nowadays.

The second issue I had with the book may stem from my lack of familiarity with Native American mythology.  The ending left me very confused.  Maggie is able to kill the Coyote with a shotgun but is not able to do the same with her mentor.  Instead, she uses a magical object that was supposed to do something entirely different, and there’s no obvious hint in the book that this object would be able to effectively banish the mentor.  On top of this, it appeared to me from the reading of the story that the Coyote was actually a step higher in the Native American hierarchy of deities than the mentor.  While the latter was a demigod, comparable to Greece’s Hercules, the former was the trickster god, potentially comparable to Hermes or Dolos.  So, killing Coyote should have been the more difficult task.

Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed the book.  It was pleasant to breeze through, without getting emotionally invested.  It featured some amazing set pieces I wouldn’t mind seeing on a screen, such as a visit to an underground bar with the ability to visualize everyone’s clan power.  Personally, I believe there were more deserving books that didn’t make the Hugo finalists list, but that has been my opinion for several years now, and I understand that the mainstream tastes have diverged from my stubbornly held old-fashioned preferences.  However, I won’t be terribly disappointed if Trail of Lighting won the 2019 Best Novel Hugo Award.

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