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Rebecca Roanhorse Reimagines the Future of Dinétah

by Carol Cooper

Trail of Lightning
By Rebecca Roanhorse
Saga Press, 304 pp.

If you didn't blink during the Emmy pre-show this year, you may have glimpsed a thin black woman standing near George R.R. Martin on the red carpet. This was Ibo-American fantasy writer Nnedi Okorofor, whose first adult SF novel, 2010's Who Fears Death, is finally being adapted for television thanks to the active support and industry clout of the man responsible for the Game of Thrones franchise.

Nnedi (a college professor and Ph.D who began her career in genre fiction by writing Young Adult fantasies), isn't the only female SF/F author of color who got lucky in 2018. In fact, last year was a banner year for non-white people in fantasy and science fiction, people whose very right to compete for genre awards alongside their white peers is still sometimes questioned by ultra-conservative elements within this supposedly progressive literary subculture. The cranks keep complaining, and we keep proving them wrong. In August, novelist N.K. Jemisin became the first fantasy author of any persuasion to win Best Novel three years in a row at the annual World Science Fiction Convention. Moreover, the three massive books that earned these consecutive "Hugo Awards" were part of the same elaborately extrapolated "Broken Earth" trilogy.

But perhaps even more astonishing than Jemisin's achievement has been the breakthrough success of Rebecca Roanhorse, an indigenous American and Yale graduate, who identifies with both the black and Pueblo Indian halves of her heritage. Not only did her very first published SF story ["Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" (™)] win a short-story "Hugo," it was a factor in her winning the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award at the 2018 Worldcon. This same story also earned her a coveted Nebula Award from the celebrated author's guild known as SFWA, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.[1] In fact, the cumulative buzz on Roanhorse had became so strong, that her first novel, Trail of Lightning (Saga/Simon & Schuster), actually sparked a bidding war for the four-book series it inaugurates.

With her first novel released to critical acclaim this past summer, and its first sequel already complete, Roanhorse is well on her way to completing the first half of a quartet of stories based in a post-apocalyptic indigenous future. Let me not underplay what a big deal this is. Indigenous American culture and fiction exists below the radar of most non-Indians, with some of the highest profile works of genre fiction concerning Indian or reservation realities having been written by whites like Tony Hillerman or Andre Norton. The speed with which this New Mexico native completed the first installments of what is being called The Sixth World Quartet, is remarkable in itself. Encouraged by a 2015 writer's workshop, Roanhorse has become a significant player within the small, fraternal world of fantasy and science fiction publishing in record time.

By what may not be merely coincidence, the stars of destiny are not aligning in her favor alone. Between the highly publicized "No-DAPL" pipeline protests in North Dakota and the election in November of two indigenous congresswomen, Indian America -- composed of hundreds of historically distinct nations -- has been raising its collective public profile in increasingly aggressive and positive ways. Epitomized by gifted individuals like Roanhorse, Indian filmmakers, educators, politicians, and novelists are getting ready to reshape or explode every passive, inaccurate stereotype mainstream America still preserves about its First Peoples.

The first thing that makes Roanhorse's fiction so appealing is that she unabashedly sets out to craft stories that reject popular dystopian clichés to promote a quasi-utopian "victory condition" for resurgent indigenous culture. Life on the Rez ain't perfect, but the problems presented are new -- not race related. In the same way the fantasy film Black Panther smashed global box office records by depicting an African nation that had miraculously escaped the twin historical traumas of colonialism and slavery, Roanhorse presents a post-apocalyptic adventure series in which the Navajo nation and its ancient traditions actually thrive during "the end of the world as we know it."

The protagonist Maggie Hoskie -- a female vigilante characterized by Navajo cosmology as a "monster slayer" -- is young, brave, wounded and flawed, as all good heroines must be. Imagine Batman with a guilty conscience, and you come close to Maggie Hoskie. It is Maggie's first-person voice that drives Trail of Lightning, placing the reader in the mind and soul of a woman whose cultural context may at first seem even more alien than that of Tolkien's Hobbits, or Rowling's Harry Potter. Roanhorse introduces all the complexities of Navajo clan relationships and linguistics without much formal explanation, letting readers figure things out from context as her story arc evolves. The book features no major white characters. In interviews Roanhorse acknowledges that this particular omission might have denied her book a publishing deal a few years ago. But times have changed. It is perhaps also a tribute to Roanhorse's storytelling skills that she can hold your attention through 300 plus pages of reservation intrigue, played out between indigenous characters who use a lot of untranslated words.

A global disaster which drowned or destroyed entire cities, has somehow resurrected the legendary gods and elemental magic of the Diné, or Navajo, people. Suddenly the sacred space of ancestral Navajo and Pueblo territory is alive with eldritch creatures only mentioned in religious myths. Threatened by predatory multinational gas and oil companies, the Diné decide to build a barrier wall, with help from their spiritual leaders. Roanhorse writes:

They say the hataalii worked hand in hand with the construction crews, and for every brick that was laid, a song was sung. Every lath, a blessing given. And the Wall took on a life of its own. When the workmen came back the next morning it was already fifty feet high. In the east it grew as white shell. In the south, turquoise. The west, pearlescent curves of abalone, and the north, the blackest jet. It was beautiful. It was ours. And we were safe. Safe from the outside world at least. (p. 21)

Now their lands were protected by mountain walls spontaneously created by uncanny substances and stranger powers. Within these walls the rural expanse of high-desert, buttes, and canyons were beautiful, but dangerous. Yes, there are specific points of authorized entry and exit, but of the few outsiders who want in, very few are white.

The principal concerns of people in Trail of Lightning are: economic survival, family, occasional romance, and coming to terms with the natural and supernatural beings that share the land with them. Elements borrowed from horror, cyberpunk, and detective fiction are threaded through this novel, which also has the folksy atmosphere of a vintage Western. As far as assigning the book to a fixed category you can't really call it "slipstream," because it doesn't ever slip back into contemporary reality. But with its elaborate adaptations of Navajo lore to the metaphorical needs of adventure fantasy, Trail of Lightning could fit nicely into the "new weird" category of alt-history so intelligently inhabited by writers like China Miéville.

The first chapter begins with a supernatural abduction that ends with a hunt, a battle, and a mercy killing. By chapter three, the reader is as unsure as Maggie seems to be about whether her special abilities doom her to being a savior or an executioner. That first chapter also tells you all you need to know about how uncomfortable Maggie is about having to be either one. Roanhorse told Locus Magazine recently that one of her stylistic influences was best-selling urban-fantasist, Laurell K. Hamilton. Readers familiar with Hamilton's first three or four "Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter" novels will recognize much of Anita's gruff, sardonic exterior in Maggie.

I won't reveal any more spoilers except to say that the trickster figure of the Coyote God pops up frequently, like an annoying sidekick in a road movie. Here, Coyote taunts and provokes people to get them to overcome their own weaknesses. In this text he actually serves the purpose of mirroring and exploring Maggie's own uncertainty about who she is and what she wants. By the end of the book most of her deepest doubts have been exorcised, and the stage is set for further teaching moments in Storm of Locusts, which hits bookstores April 2019, just before this prolific wife and mother is slated to release the first volume in a separate epic fantasy series based upon the vanished Anasazi cliff dwellers.


1 More specifically, while Roanhorse won a Hugo and a Nebula in 2018 for "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM), she earned the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for her overall body of SF/F -- related work, which in her case includes several non-fiction essays plus the debut novel released in June. The Campbell Award is given out at WorldCon along with the Hugos, but unlike each "Hugo," it's for a range or written work, not one specific novel or story. The voting period for the Campbell Award opened May 3rd and closed July 1st 2018, just before the mid-August convention.

Published in: First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination, January 1, 2019