The Sixth World
by Rebecca Roanhorse
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Trail of Lightning / 2. Storm of Locusts
Rebecca Roanhorse's debut novel, Trail of Lightning, is an exciting post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy/horror hybrid, set in the nation of Dinétah, the traditional home of the Diné, which is the indigenous population's name for themselves, the group the white man know as the Navajo. The farthest future date mentioned is 2030, not sure how many years beyond that the narrative details. Unlike with some other recent new series debuts, I know I will read the follow up, so I've titled this page for the series name of The Sixth World. The Diné consider the end of the Fifth World to have been the event they call the Big Water, which is only partially like the current predictions of rising seas. There aren't a lot of details, but it can be surmised that earthquakes, possibly exacerbated by fracking, have caused the Gulf of Mexico to now extend north through the Great Plains into the Midwest. Events that preceded the Big Water include the Energy Wars and the Water Wars. While most of the rest of the world has a surfeit of water, Dinétah is suffering through a years-long drought. They have walled themselves off from the world, accomplished through both human labor and native magic. That magic may also be responsible for releasing many evil spirits which had lain dormant in the land for generations.
Roanhorse is of indigeneous heritage, not Diné, but a nearby Pueblo tribe. She lives in New Mexico, knows the land and its people. I've never read many westerns, but I can't imagine Max Brand or Louis L'Amour ever described the landscape as evocatively. The story begins at the Lukachukai Chapter House, and many other places within the Navajo Nation are mentioned; Black Mesa, Tse Bonito, Crownpoint, Rock Springs, Fort Defiance, Canyon de Chelly. The protagonist is Maggie Hoskie, an orphan in her early twenties, whom many call the Monsterslayer, although she says that title should be reserved for her savior/mentor Naayéé' Neizghání, the immortal demi-god of Diné legend, son of Changing Woman. Maggie had been living with her grandmother, who was attacked and killed by monster spirits on Maggie's sixteenth birthday, then she was rescued by Neizghání. He trained her to fight the monsters, to call upon her clan powers for strength. While under the influence of K'aahanáanii, Maggie's ruthlesslness in killing several monsters at Black Mesa frightens Neizghání into abandoning her, and they do not meet again for nearly a year. In the meantime she goes into a depression for several months, staying by herself in an abandoned trailer, until she reluctantly takes a job to find a girl snatched from Lukachukai. The monster who had taken the girl was later identified as a tsé naayéé', with which she was not familiar. A new acquaintance, Kai Arviso, believes it is not a traditional monster, but rather something created by another using magic.
Quite a few other Diné names mentioned, for both monsters as well as magical powers. Some I can't duplicate here because they include symbols not on the character map, and I can't find them anywhere else on the net to copy and paste. Others are simple, like Ma'ii, the Diné version of the trickster spirit Coyote. It is surprising that Maggie trusts him for information on how to track down whoever made the tsé naayéé'. There are other instances of her trusting people she shouldn't, or not trusting those she should, of doubting and questioning who are her allies, who are her enemies. It takes a great effort just to trust herself and her own instincts, but in the end she does. The action is intense and violent, inexorably paced, with perils and deceptions around every curve, over every hill, behind every door. It's not clear if all her decisions were the correct ones, but she does survive, her adventure will continue. Even though she will still rely on spirits and magic in the future, she knows she is the master of her own destiny. Maybe she is the Monsterslayer after all. Highly recommended.
UPDATE: Now a finalist for 2018 Nebula, and Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial awards. More recently, it has received nominations for Hugo and Locus awards.
Storm of Locusts picks up about a month after the concluding events in the first book. (Scroll up if you haven't read that review). I refrained from spoilers as much as possible for that, and I hope to continue being vague. Suffice it to say, there are several former allies now distrustful of Maggie for her actions. She hopes they will eventually understand the why and how of what she did, and if not forgive her, at least stop hating her for it. She has not seen Kai Arviso in all that time, waiting for him to make the first move to resume their relationship. In the meantime she has been working with the Thirsty Boys, a mercenary group of other Diné. On what is supposed to be her day off, they show up at her trailer and ask for her help in tracking down a group led by someone, or something, known as the White Locust. They have supposedly been stockpiling explosives and other armaments, and are suspected in the kidnapping of a Tribal Council official.
Maggie and Kai were not the only ones who could draw on clan powers. Another is sixteen year old Ben, a girl in spite of that name. The Thirsty Boy leader is her second or third cousin, although she thinks of him more as an uncle. Her power is for tracking, but that power requires a blood sample. They find where they think the White Locust has been hiding, a cave in the cliffs around a nearby lake, but it has been abandoned. Except for one lone lookout, who takes out the Thirsty Boy with two well-placed arrows. In addition to being an expert bowman, the woman can also hover in the air thanks to wings that have been grafted to her back. While Maggie is trying to interrogate her, Ben storms up and stabs the woman. This action infuriates Maggie, since she desperately needed information, and she now knows that Ben is her responsibility. She drags Ben away and they go back to her house to plan their next move. Little time has passed when two former cohorts, Rissa and Clive Goodacre, show up and tell them that their younger brother Caleb has been kidnapped, and that Kai is somehow involved, maybe as another victim, perhaps as an accomplice. No matter the differences between her and Kai, Maggie is sure he would not allow any harm to come to Caleb.
Their search begins at the All-American, the Goodacre's bar, the last place Kai and Caleb had been seen. The trail leads to Tse Bonito, then south to Lupton, the southernmost point of the wall around Dinétah, and what they find there propels them to go through the gate and out of Dinétah, into the Malpais. They are slowly making their way along the rubble of the old Route 66, but are ambushed and taken captive by an armed group. Even when they are able to make their escape, their troubles continue. On to the Twin Arrows Casino, long abandoned but still clean and fully functional, since it is now under the control of a Diné god. Further travels lead them north into Utah, to where they believe they will find the White Locust, and hopefully figure out his plan. All along the way Maggie encounters people and gods who somehow know who she is, that she is the Monsterslayer, or as she is now dubbed, the Godslayer. Turns out that might be why the White Locust has drawn her out, to get her to help him kill a few gods and ascend to the pantheon himself. Considering the powers he possesses, it seems he's close to accomplishing that on his own...with maybe a little bit of help from Kai. Is Kai under the White Locusts' control, or is he stealthily working to undermine him? It takes up to the cataclysmic climax for Maggie to be sure.
There are a few quiet, character driven moments, but the majority of the book moves along at a fast pace, with plenty of action and surprises. The landscapes of Dinétah, the Malpais, northern Arizona and into Utah, are just as important to the story as the characters and plot. It is a harsh environment, full of heartache and pain, but still cherished by those who live there. I hope this book sells well, because it is obvious Roanhorse has more stories to tell, this one ending on an eerie note. That it focuses on a culture I had previously known little about is interesting, informative, and exciting. I want to continue reading the adventures of Maggie, Kai, Ben, and maybe even Rissa, now that she and Maggie seem to have mended their fences, and I think many others would enjoy them as I have. I recommend the Sixth World books unreservedly.
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