I’m not a religious person, but the idea of religion appeals to me. I like the idea of being in communion with something higher and bigger than just myself and my immediate world. Even though I’ve come to terms with the notion that formalized faith might not be for me, I do find a lot of comfort and otherworldly connection in the stories I read. Words have been my source of sacred solace and joy my whole life. I realized recently that the stories I connect with most are the ones that bridge that impossible, beautiful gap between human life and what/who could exist beyond our comprehension. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is one of those stories.
Here’s the synopsis that made me catch my breath and clamor to get my hands on this book:
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.
Seriously, how EPIC does that already sound? Rebecca Roanhorse wholeheartedly delivers on this breathtaking premise and serves up an incredibly moving story that blurs that exquisite divide between the mortal world and the beyond.
Memory & Trauma
Trail of Lightning is, thankfully, the beginning of a series of novels that take place in the Sixth World. I absolutely expected Roanhorse to begin this first novel at the inception of Maggie Hoskie’s supernatural life: namely, the moment that she receives her powers. To my surprise, I didn’t get any answers regarding the truth of her origin story until I was fifty pages in. Instead I met an abrasive, jaded killer, coping from being abandoned by her mentor and trying to just get through each day in a world where she has more enemies than friends.
It might seem like a simple or offhand choice to push the details of Maggie’s origin to later in the text, but it’s not. If Roanhorse wanted to tell a compelling story about Maggie and her prowess as a killer, she could have moved the origin to the beginning. But Trail of Lightning is about more than Maggie’s powers. It’s about how she considers her power and negotiates her sense of belonging in the world, and it’s also about the trauma that she has endured through the awakening of these clan powers. Not everyone is supernaturally gifted in the Sixth World, and Maggie faces the consequences of her abilities in both her personal and public lives.
Roanhorse’s astute decision to hold off on sharing Maggie’s backstory upfront not only kept me guessing as a reader, but also created a really authentic look into how grief and trauma transform our minds. There’s no real timeline for moving forward from an ended relationship or the death of a loved one, and in Trail of Lightning Maggie’s heartbreak is present on every page, even if she’s not actively thinking about it. Roanhorse uses memory to unfold the specifics of Maggie’s history, and because the story is told in first person present tense, we get to follow Maggie into her mind as she relives her past firsthand. When we finally learn the violent circumstances of Maggie receiving her powers, it’s painful and heartbreaking, but it’s also happening while Maggie is making coffee in the kitchen of her trailer. Roanhorse merges the immensity of human grief and the mundane so beautifully in this scene, and she continues to do it for the rest of the novel.
Balancing Joy and Pain, Light and Dark
The really beautiful thing about this novel is that despite the real agony that Maggie endures on her journey, and despite the fact it is a post-apocalyptic world, the experience of reading Trail of Lightning is never bleak or hopeless. Yes, the grief and pain of Maggie’s past shadow her on almost every page, and there’s a tumult of violence throughout the novel as she hunts the witch who’s creating monsters that feast on humans. But there’s also light, and laughter, and romance, thanks to the incredible and complex cast of characters Roanhorse arranges around Maggie.
Believe me when I tell you that writing interesting and varied characters is hard. I gave up on my first novel attempt because the two main characters sounded exactly the same and coincidentally, exactly like me. From the way in which they carry themselves to the way their words sound on the page, Roanhorse’s characters are so freaking vibrant and textured that I would read a standalone novel about every single one of them. My favorites are probably Kai Arviso, the ultra-handsome road trip companion whose beguiling secrets and silver eyes make for very intense car rides, and Ma’ii, the trickster god also known as Coyote, who’s been visiting Maggie dressed as an old English colonizer since she was a girl. These characters, along with the grandfatherly Tah, the stern but loving barkeeper Grace Goodacre, and others keep Maggie on her toes and keep her utterly human, coloring what could be a desolate, monotonous existence of killing monsters into an infinitely brighter one, full of possibility and the chance to do good.
The broader narrative impact of this truly stellar characterization is that each moment in this book is a high-stakes moment for Maggie, either emotionally or in terms of her own survival. Whether she’s on a battlefield facing invisible monsters or sparring against an ageless trickster in a sparsely decorated living room, Maggie is vulnerable, at risk of being hurled into a battle where her heart or body might not make it out alive. This vulnerability creates a wonderfully dizzying, visceral read, and it’s this feeling that truly merges the two worlds, immortal and mortal, into one.
- Friends, the SCOPE of this book. I would really love to watch a TV series based on these books, but also maybe a stage play? The way Roanhorse widens and narrows the scenes for Maggie Hoskie is superb, and such good reading.
- The Navajo language is beautiful. Words like K’aahanáanii, or Living Arrow, and Neizghání, the name of Maggie’s mentor, remind me of the importance of seeing non-English words on the page. These are normal words, new to many readers, and essential to the story in their original, untranslated, un-italicized form. I really loved learning about Navajo mythology through this story.
- Y’all, please go get this book so I can scream about it with you.
Like I said, I’m not one for organized religion, but Trail of Lightning is a book that solidifies my faith in words and stories. I read to watch the extraordinary flung into the mundane, the mundane tossed into the extraordinary, and to witness the dance between the two. Rebecca Roanhorse leads us down that remarkable divide in this powerful story, and reminds us that the real divinity of life is balancing the pain of humanity with the most exquisite joy.
Book photo by Tulip Majumdar, with the help of artificial flowers and Instagram filters