To kill a monster, do you have to be a monster? Maggie Hoskie’s deepest fear is that the answer to this question is yes. In Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, we watch Maggie as she wrestles with internal and external demons as zombie-like creatures start to ravage a reimagined Dinétah. She’s the only one with the skills and the grit to take these creatures down before they kill everyone—and before Maggie loses all her humanity.
Everyone in the Dinétah is struggling to survive in their climate ravaged country. The fact that there are monsters from the Diné (Navajo) legends running around an eating people is just adding insult to injury. Maggie makes her living hunting down those monsters—and running interference with Coyote and other demigods—for trade goods and very little thanks. Since it’s the only thing she’s good at and because there’s no one else to take on the job, Maggie carries on. She’s tough and survivor. The problem is that her mentor abandoned her after telling her that evil (monsters and killing monsters) is like a disease. Maggie fears that she is becoming as much a monster as the creatures she kills with her shotgun (loaded with corn pollen and obsidian pellets) and knives.
The plot circles around the Dinétah as Maggie and her reluctantly acquired partner, Kai, race around the Arizona desert trying to figure out where the zombies are coming, figure out what the hell Coyote wants, and avoid Law Dogs with a grudge. Meanwhile, Kai and his cheerful determination work on Maggie’s self-loathing to try and get her to realize that her curses are really gifts. What makes Maggie really good at being a monsterslayer, her clan powers of speed and bloodlust, are exactly what make her worry that she is becoming a monster herself. The fact that she can dispatch a cluster of monsters in a matter of minutes (while getting everything covered in blood and bits) horrified any bystanders as well as Maggie. Along with the question of whether Maggie and Kai can save the Dinétah is the question of whether or not Maggie can learn to see herself as a protector instead of a killer.
Trail of Lightning is a fast read, packed with fights and wonderfully drawn characters. I wish Roanhorse had done a bit more with the setting and the flooded world she created, but I’m not too miffed. This book is the first one in a series and, given all of the buzz around the book, there should be plenty more entries in Maggie’s story in the future. What Roanhorse does really well is incorporate the Diné language and culture into the story. The text is full of Diné words that are not translated, which I think gives it the necessary verisimilitude to keep the story grounded while all the fantastic stuff happens.