Wednesday 10 July 2019

Trail of Lightning: Shockingly Good

Rebbeca Roanhorse’s debut novel Trail of Lightning might appear at first to be a run-of-the-mill
Rebecca Roanhorse at the 2018
Worldcon, where she won her first
Hugo Award.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
urban fantasy, but it offers the astute reader a culturally-rich narrative.

Set against a multifaceted, frightening future where North America has been ravaged by man-made climate change, Trail of Lightning pits deadly, other-worldly monsters against people with superhuman powers.

Those familiar with Indigenous storytelling practices will be at home with Roanhorse’s writing style, in which metaphor and allegory are used prominently, and more-than-human relations (ie. relationships between humans, nature, animals, and spiritual beings) are common and understood (well, as much as any relationship can be understood).

While mainstream audiences may interpret these stories as myth or as speculative fiction, Indigenous storytelling traditions are more likely to recognize the philosophical and pedagogical nature of these narratives. At times, the stories shift from Aesop-like cautionary tales like that of the windigo, to stories that teach values like the story of Kunuuksaayuka. Roanhorse’s work expands on these traditions and exposes them to a new audience.

Like the Binti trilogy, the culturally-specific narrative anticipates that the audience can adjust, learn,
Trail Of Lightning blends Indigenous
narrative tradition with genre tropes.
(Image via
and experience what is new to them. At times, etic readers may find this overwhelming, but The Six World series makes the effort worthwhile. Roanhorse doesn’t explain certain terms or phrasing in the first chapters because the protagonist and narrator, Maggie Hoskie, doesn’t need exposition. It’s the reality she lives in and knows. While it may be new to readers, it functions as an immersive experience.

The backdrop of apocalyptic climate change inspired discussion about its possible misuse as a fictive understanding of climate change itself (that is, as an argument against the science behind the evidence-based phenomenon). Others argued that the fantastical nature of the climate change seen in Trail of Lighting was used as a narrative tipping point. That is, the supernatural regains control after humans have mucked up the fifth world. Everyone seemed to agree that the setting made for an interesting element in that it constrained the protagonist from understanding the whole of the world.

With this idea of iterative ‘worlds’ that the planet experiences, it is hard not to compare the work to N.K. Jemisin’s much-lauded Broken Earth trilogy. Both works involve a world broken by Euro-settler hubris, both involve protagonists with superhuman gifts; and both are centred in cultural understandings. Likewise, one can see parallels between Trail of Lightning and American Gods, through its conflicts between the known world and the transcendent.

These comparisons, however, may place Trail of Lightning at a disadvantage, because as an introductory novel, it does not show the same writerly craft as these illustrious predecessors. In particular, some of the character development in the book shows some weakness and inconsistency — Maggie Hoskie’s simmering anger and grimness is a bit lacking in nuance. Given her self-reliance and independence, it’s disappointing to see her make mistakes because of a cliche romantic entanglement.

It is also interesting to compare Trail of Lightning to another 2018 Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel
Anishinaabe journalist Waubgeshig Rice
is another Indigenous writer whose SF
we would heartily recommend.
(Image via
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Anishinaabe writer and journalist Waubgeshig Rice, which was on several of our 2019 Hugo nominating ballots. This Canadian bestseller might have been overlooked by the broader science-fiction community, but Rice’s tale deserves more attention for his depiction of the collapse of society from the perspective of those who have marginalized for generations. It is an extraordinary science fiction novel. For those whose appetites for this type of narrative have been whet by Roanhorse’s book, we highly recommend this book.

Overall Trail of Lightning is an engaging read that brings an important and often marginalized viewpoint to a broader science fiction audience. Despite some of our criticisms of characterization, Roanhorse’s deft weaving of cultural knowledge, myth, metaphor and real-world challenges put this at or near the top of many of our ballots.

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