The Sixth World
by Rebecca Roanhorse
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Trail of Lightning
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 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 she trusts him for information on how to track down whoever made the tsé naayéé'. There are other instances of her trusting others 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.
UPDATE: Now a finalist for 2018 Nebula, and Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial awards.
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