Books: Trail of Lightning

36373298Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published June 26, 2018
star-4
I’ve been meaning to read Trail of Lightning for almost a year. Although I listed it in a Reader’s Guide to Diverse Science-Fiction & Fantasy that I created for my local library branch last fall, it was one of the few titles that I hadn’t actually read. So when the Nebula Award nominees for Best Novel were announced, I jumped at the chance to bump Trail of Lightning up my list. Happily the first novel in my Reading the Nebulas challenge did not disappoint. Trail of Lightning is a fast-paced urban fantasy that doesn’t shy away from depicting the lasting effects of trauma, while also delivering fantastic worldbuilding and a prickly, but likable protagonist.

Set in a post-apocalyptic near future where the United States has been ravaged by flooding and ‘energy wars’ between multinational oil and gas companies, the Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) survives, but gods and monsters from Navajo mythology walk the land. Supernaturally gifted monster hunter Maggie Hoskie may be the only person capable of stopping the spread of the monsters, but she’s haunted by her past and unsure of her abilities.

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre that usually appeals to me – I like my plots with more complexity and overarching elements than the genre tends to provide – but I was intrigued by the premise of a Native American heroine and the incorporation of Navajo mythology. Sure enough, it’s the worldbuilding that sets Trail of Lightning apart from the rest. With its long stretches of desert, lack of material goods and luxuries (coffee is a rarity and new clothes are hard to come by), and the possibility that a Native American trickster god will stop in for dinner and matchmaking, Dinétah is an atmospheric setting. I loved the way Roanhorse incorporated Navajo culture and mythology into the story organically. She also gives us tidbits about the broader world outside the reservation that will hopefully be expanded upon in the sequel, Storm of Locusts.

I suspect tough, badass but broken protagonist Maggie Hoskie is far from an outlier in the urban fantasy genre, but there’s something so very human about her that drew me in. Although Maggie bears the physical and psychological scars of her past, she does gradually begin to heal and to show vulnerability. I enjoyed her dynamic with Kai, the charismatic, boyband-good-looking, medicine man who accompanies her, and the banter and spark between them had me rooting for their inevitable relationship. The secondary characters are similarly three-dimensional, although I found Maggie’s ‘monsterslayer’ mentor underwritten after all the build-up.

Straddling the YA/adult line, Trail of Lightning is a quick read that can definitely be finished in a sitting or two. The pace is brisk, and when there’s a rare breather, the banter between characters keeps the story moving. As much as I enjoyed the pacing, I suspect it may also have hurt the book. The plot isn’t the strongest and it feels like the characters are acting for the sake of movement instead of with a clear purpose at all times. The climactic battle, while appropriately large-scale, also feels messy with resolution unclear.

The worldbuilding and likable characters are what kept me invested in the novel though and I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes next!

Reading the Nebulas

ReadingTheNebulasThe finalists for the prestigious 2018 Nebula awards, which honour the best works of science-fiction or fantasy published in the United States (as decided by active members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), were announced last month and the list looks great!

It’s been two years since I set myself the challenge of reading all of the Hugo Award nominees for best novel. During the course of it I read some books I may never have picked up otherwise, but that I really enjoyed… and one I very much did not. I loved challenging myself to read more broadly, even within my preferred genre, so this year I’m taking on the Nebulas!

Like the Hugo nominees of the past few years, the Nebula finalists for Best Novel are refreshingly diverse, with not a straight, white, male among them. Five of the six authors nominated are women, and some are Women of Colour!

Before committing to the challenge I had already read one of the nominees, R.K. Kuang’s brutal and mesmerizing The Poppy War (read my review here), so I have five books to read before the winners are announced on May 18th. I’m going to try and squeeze in some of the nominees for Best Novella as well (I’ve already read and loved P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums), but since The Tea Master and the Detective doesn’t appear to be in print and my library only has a reference copy, I don’t think I’ll manage to read them all.

Here are the 2018 nominees for Best Novel that I’ll be reading:

Nebulanominees

The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late. 

Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.

When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.

Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

Witchmark, C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

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—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

In case I get to them, here are the Novella nominees:

Fire Ant, Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives, Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition, Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)


I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, so look for that review in the next few days, and I plan to pick up Witchmark next.

Have you read, or are you planning to read any of this year’s Nebula nominees? What do you think of the nominees?