Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Book Review: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Pros: excellent setting, interesting characters, realistic depiction of trauma, great magic system 

Cons: muddled ending with confusing motivations

Maggie Hoskie is of the Living Arrow clan, born for the Walks-Around clan. She is Dine, living inside the walled reservation grounds after the Big Water disaster killed much of the outside world. Her clan affiliations give her blood lust, which made her the perfect apprentice for Neizghani, a monsterslaying hero/god.

Abandoned by her mentor a year ago, she’s uninterested in being a monsterslayer, but when new creatures start attacking villages, the local medicine man suggests it’s the work of a witch. So he partners her with his in-training grandson, a man with clan powers of his own.

This is a cross between urban fantasy (monsters/magic in the present day) and post-apocalyptic fiction. I loved the reservation setting and the descriptions of the houses, food, etc. I also enjoyed the hints of what went on to bring about society’s collapse. There’s a good number of Navajo words, but most of it’s immediately translated, so they added a nice flavour to the text without creating any confusion.

Maggie isn’t a particularly likeable character, though she’s very sympathetic once you learn her back story. She’s very no nonsense and kickass, but is also clearly emotionally stunted and can’t abide being touched. Her standoffishness and antagonism is off-putting, but are clearly coping mechanisms for the traumas she’s suffered.

Kai, the grandson, is really fun. While I wasn’t a fan of his fashion sense I loved how positive and considerate he is. I was surprised it took Maggie so long to figure out his clan powers, as they both seemed pretty obvious early on.

The Goodacre twins were probably my favourite characters despite only showing up towards the end of the book. Clive was awesome.

I thought the clan magic was handled well. I loved that Maggie is very powerful but that she can’t entirely control herself while in the throes of power, and that there was a time frame for how long she could use her magic and immediate consequences for its use.

There were minor romance elements that were handled well. The author subverted my expectations here, and I was very happy about that. I rolled my eyes when Kai was introduced but everyone was so over the top about trying to push them together that I loved Maggie’s responses to the pressure. I liked that the characters didn’t jump into anything and that their relationship developed fairly naturally. I was impressed with the author’s handling of Maggie’s trauma and how it impacted her ability to feel friendship and love.

Maggie and Kai team up to find the witch but there’s little work on the actual mystery. That is, they only actively search out one clue, after that the witch storyline seems to disappear for a while until someone points them to the next thing they need to do.

The ending left me with a lot of questions with regards to character motivations and actions. I’ll speak more about this in the spoiler section below.

Ultimately I wish the ending had been tighter and less muddled as it left me feeling unsatisfied with the book, even though there were a quite a few positive elements.

*** SPOILERS ***

With regards to the romance storyline, I was glad things went slowly as Maggie’s not in a position - even at the end - where she could be in a healthy relationship. She’s got a lot of healing to do and while I think Kai is a decent person and would be able to help her learn how to trust (even with that ending), jumping into a sexual relationship would likely do her more harm than good.

For the ending, as I said, I was surprised that Maggie didn’t clue in on her own that Kai has the ability to manipulate people into liking him. That was clear to me during his first conversation with Longarm. While I can understand her anger at finding out the way she did, it shocked me how poorly she took the revelation when it’s equally clear that he didn’t manipulate HER. Yes, he had ulterior motivations for seeking her friendship, but most adult friendships do (even if they’re just ‘I want to monopolize your time so I don’t feel lonely’). She seemed almost angry that he hadn’t manipulated her feelings of friendship and love towards him, which confused me. If he HAD manipulated her feelings I could understand, unless the idea that she has feelings is what scared her.

Maggie lived with Neizghani for years. Why was she so willing to believe that he would become a witch and create monsters? He’s the monster *slayer* after all. If the idea here was that if she could become a monster, than so could he, it needed to be articulated better. As a god, I assumed his personality would be less changeable than a human’s. So at the end when it was clear that Ma’ii was behind the monsters and her grandmother’s death, I expected her to team up with Neizghani to defeat them. I certainly expected her to refuse to follow Ma’ii’s plan to kill Neizghani.

Finally, I didn’t understand why Neizghani wanted to kill Kai. The book implied it was partly over jealousy (even though Maggie hadn’t really done anything with him yet) and partly because Kai was powerful and COULD become evil one day. Maybe as a god Neizghani assumed a pre-emptive strike was the best way to solve the problem, but it seems to me that someone stylized as a hero should have to wait until the man’s actually evil before killing him. Again, the motivations here could have been clarified.

No comments: