Trail of Lightning
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Cover art from Rebecca Roanhorse's novel Trail of Lightning. Credit: Saga Press / Simon & Schuster

Indigenous stories, powerful women, and the rise of Rebecca Roanhorse

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May 8, 2019

“It has felt fast,” Rebecca Roanhorse says of her rise as an author. “The debut experience itself can really be exhausting. Everything you say and do has a new level of scrutiny, and if you’re not used to being a public figure — I wasn’t — then it’s like holy sh*t. You sneeze on Twitter and 50,000 tweets later, who knows?”

It’s clear that the Roanhorse is still adjusting to her rapidly increasing — and much deserved — notoriety. “I can’t complain,” she says. “It’s all been amazing.” In 2017, Roanhorse won several major awards for her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience." It's an impressive feat, made all the more so by one little detail: This was the first short story she ever wrote. This is something of a pattern for Roanhorse. The Hugo-nominated book Trail of Lightning was her first novel. Her writing has been heralded as indigenizing science fiction and fantasy, and she’s only getting started.

Roanhorse's second novel, Storm of Locusts, is the second book in the Sixth World series. It was released last month to even more critical acclaim and fan excitement. Her first YA novel, Race to the Sun, will appear in early 2020, and her epic fantasy novel, Between Earth and Sky, focused on the Ancestral Puebloans and deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures, will arrive in 2020 or 2021, according to Roanhorse. There will be at least one more book in the Sixth World series, continuing the adventures of Maggie Hoskin and her friends as they visit the mysterious home of the water barons, the Burque.

The rise of her career and the immediate critical acclaim she has received are an indication that audiences are hungry for what Roanhorse is creating: deeply Indigenous, racially inclusive, feminist, and evocative stories. It's a rise that shows no signs of stopping, especially after the recent announcement that Roanhorse has also written a Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker tie-in novel, Resistance Reborn, which is slated for release in November of this year.

Content warning: mentions of violence against Indigenous peoples; mentions of sexual and physical violence against Indigenous women; mentions of trauma and survival.

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Credit: Saga Press / Simon and Schuster

Trail of Lightning introduces Monsterslayer Maggie Hoskin and brings to life the world of Dinétah, the home of the Navajo nation. Due to fracking, climate change, and other manner of human-created evil, the world as we know it no longer exists. In its place, a world in chaos appears, except (sometimes) in Dinétah, which is surrounded by four mystical walls designed by the gods to protect the five-fingered. When the world flooded, a new world came into being, and with it came the return of the gods, monsters, and clan powers. The entirety of the first book takes place within the walls of Dinétah and finds Maggie facing all manner of nasties — human and monster alike. Maggie must learn who she is, how to understand her clan powers, and what exists beyond survival.

Storm of Locusts, which takes place four weeks after the climax of the first book, follows Maggie as she is once again called to duty to protect her people from a monster, but as she follows the monster’s trail she’s forced to confront the fact that she doesn’t know as much about this monster or her clan powers as she once thought. Luckily, Maggie joins up with the badass Rissa and the indefatigable Ben, and together the three women form a girl gang that is a force to be reckoned with. The only question is: Can Maggie really change her killing ways?

Roanhorse’s world and the story of Maggie are delightful and unexpected. In the series so far, Roanhorse has bravely tackled challenging topics including sexual assault, adoption, identity, femininity, and healing.

The power of survival

From the opening chapter of Trail of Lightning, the parallels between the treatment of women and girls in Roanhorse’s novels and the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women in real life is striking. “That’s why you have the girl at the beginning whose name actually means ‘girl’ in Navajo, and that’s why she’s taken by the monster,” says Roanhorse, discussing the first monster-hunting mission we see Maggie undertake. It ends miserably, with the monster dead but having already chewed on the throat of the dying girl. Maggie ends her suffering by cutting off her head. It’s as dark an opening as any, but it is fitting that readers' introduction to Maggie is when she is forced to mercy-kill someone so much like herself. “Maggie really is a survivor of violence in a lot of ways — not just violence perpetuated against people she loves, but against her as well.”

Violence and trauma play a central role throughout the series but take on a particularly noteworthy role when it comes to clan powers. “It’s hard to tell a Native story without talking about the effects of trauma, both generational and individual,” notes Roanhorse. It is only when a character undergoes extreme trauma, live-or-die trauma generally, that their clan powers awaken. These superpowers take many forms and are passed down from one’s clan(s). (Clans are an important part of Navajo culture, though clan powers are a novel concept created by Roanhorse.)

“For [your clan powers] to come from trauma, to come for the places that you are at your weakest or your worst, and for power to come from that? That was just really appealing to me,” says Roanhorse, who believes that the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is still up for debate.

The decision to have a survivor of violence then in turn become a monster slayer is deeply rooted both in Navajo tradition and in the character’s own arc. She learns not only to fight physical monsters, which she does with more than a little panache, but to fight her own metaphorical monsters. “Can you outgrow your places of trauma so that the things you have learned, how to cope and how to exist, no longer serve you?” Roanhorse asks both Maggie and the reader.

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Credit: Saga Press / Simon and Schuster

Being a fine lady sounds like a f*cking nightmare

The girl gang is a central component of Storm of Locusts and one of the most significant changes from the first book, during which Maggie is almost exclusively surrounded by men, many of whom diminish or underestimate her. “At the end [of Trail of Lightning] she decides she doesn’t have to be who everybody thinks she should be — and that 'everybody' in this case is dudes,” says Roanhorse. “She breaks free of that, and the next thing [in Storm of Locusts] is to get out of her walls, both literally from the walls of Dinétah and metaphorically, because I’m not subtle.” Roanhorse continues, “She’s going to do that by creating female friendships and female relationships.”

The really fantastic thing about how Roanhorse takes Maggie on this journey is that having more female friendships does not translate into Maggie having to become more traditionally feminine. A couple characters refer to Maggie as a “solid bitch.” Roanhorse views the term as a compliment and as a powerful transgression. “It means that you’re pushing boundaries and pissing somebody off, and usually the people you’re pissing off are the people that you should be, frankly, pissing off.” Roanhorse knows that means not everyone will like Maggie, but she really doesn’t care. “That’s Maggie. God forbid she not be a solid bitch. God forbid she be out there trying to please other people and not be true to herself.”

“I made her the way I liked her,” Roanhorse says. “I know a lot of dudes don’t like her, but that makes me feel that I’m probably doing something right.”

Maggie’s form of femininity doesn’t negate anyone else’s in the series. “You can still be a badass and carry a gun like Rissa, but don’t mind to dress up a little bit. Or like Ben, who loves a frilly dress but can definitely handle herself,” says Roanhorse.

When someone suggests that Rissa, not Maggie, dress in disguise as a “fine lady” to help save Ben from the lions’ den — which in this case is a place called Knifetown, where people are captured and either sold as slaves or cut into pieces and sold as spare parts — Maggie finds herself relieved. The text reads: I feel like I should be offended, but I’m so far from offended. Being a fine lady sounds like a f*cking nightmare.

Roanhorse wields Mean Girls references as easily as Navajo humor. She tackles trauma and violence as adeptly as she does romance and attraction. She has plumbed the depths of the human experience, and her exceptional work speaks for itself. If you haven’t heard about Roanhorse or her writing before, you will. So grab some popcorn and get ready to watch her rise.

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