To be honest, I wasn’t expecting this novel to work as well as it does. At least for me, most of what makes up the DNA of Roanhorse’s work here — post-apocalyptica, western, male-female romance — appeal to me not in the least. That these elements do nothing to detract from my enjoyment of the final product speaks to how well she develops both the worldbuilding of her “sixth world,” as well as integrate the mythology she bases much of it upon. Indeed, that she draws from a cast of all non-white native characters is the least of her accomplishments here.
In essence, then, Trail of Lightning is part Fallout, part American Gods, and all Western, with a dash of the buddy-cop dynamic blended with a male-female romance pairing. After the environmental disaster that devastated the modern world, the Navajo — or as the characters refer to themselves, Diné — of the southwestern US (re)form their own, separate nation, Dinétah, complete with a mystical wall raised on all sides to keep out unwanted outside interference. Of course, while the outside world holds many dangers, what lies within may prove even more deadly — as our leading monster-hunter protagonist, Mags, muses in the novel’s opening pages.
Trail of Lightning’s principal strength is, in my mind, the unique and strong worldbuilding present from the word “go”. This is worldbuilding done precisely to the extent that Roanhorse needs for her story, (or perhaps just a little further) and it’s fantastic. Most appealing for me is how effortlessly she allows the gods of the Diné to walk among her mortal characters. The comparison to American Gods I made was deliberate, as they come and go just as smoothly as you like.
The gods aren’t the only ones throwing their weight around. In the dusty backroads of Dinétah, many mortals are gifted with clan powers. These powers range from prowess in battle, to healing, disguise, and silver tongues, with plenty in between.
Beyond that, the novel presents a well trod, though still solid, structure for its story. The world is still recovering from environmental catastrophe — one it’s hinted was helped along by supernatural forces, for good or ill. The basic characters are pulled straight from the buddy cop genre, with the straightlaced smartass teaming up with the cop-on-the-edge. That neither are actually cops pushes this into the territory of the Western, where folk have to make their own law — the legal authorities, such as they are, certainly won’t do it for them.
That’s all to say that Roanhorse crafted a perfectly comprehensible and well-paced plot, shaping it around a winning core that is her world. If any of these genre combinations interest you, pick this one up.