Review: Trail of Lightning

I have done some Hugo-ballot reading!

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is up for Best Novel this year; I’ve put it last on my ballot.

Sometime in the nearish future, climate catastrophe has flooded the world and all but cut off the Navajo homeland of Dinetah from the rest of America. The gods and monsters of Navajo tradition are returning, and Our Hero, a monster-hunter named Maggie Hoskie, takes on a mission to hunt down a creature that’s stealing children.

This is a speculative fiction novel that’s steeped in Native American tradition, from the magic system (which is based on what Roanhorse calls clan powers – certain people have supernatural abilities related to the clans they belong to) to how Maggie is paid by those who commission her (she receives a valuable blanket, “rare and prized and not made that often any more”). I, a white woman, found this a vivid and unusual setting, and it’s hard not to imagine that this is why it’s on the Hugo ballot; I personally haven’t encountered any other SFF novels that feature Native American traditions/beliefs in this way, although that doesn’t at all mean they don’t exist.

It’s worth noting, though, that the book’s been criticised by Navajo scholars as appropriative and insensitive (Roanhorse is Native American but not Navajo). And it doesn’t really have much else going for it beyond this problematic representation: the plot is technically competent but linear (we’re in Maggie’s head the whole time as she just does one thing after the other) and the writing is workaday.

I didn’t hate it, but it kind of sums up my feelings about the ballot this year: it’s filled with novels that are fun to spend time with but don’t really feel award-worthy. (Apart from my top choice, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun – but more on that anon!)

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