Book Review: Trail of Lightning

Because I read a lot of older works in effort to catch up with my genre (I am, sadly, more poorly read than an author should be!), I find myself reading a lot about white people.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m about as white as sour cream, and I do enjoy a lot of stories about white people, but I thought I should make a concerted effort to work beyond that comfort zone.

The Book

51av2ksycqlTrail of Lightning
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
2018
Amazon Link

A long time ago, I read on Maggie Tiede’s book blog about a short story by Rebecca Roanhorse called “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM).”  I really enjoyed the short story, and I found it desperately creative.  Maggie also mentioned that there was a book, Trail of Lightning, by the same author that would be published later in 2018.  I looked at it, thought it seemed like Native American Supernatural, and requested it on some gift lists for Christmas.  I did end up receiving it as a Christmas gift, and I am now very pleased to share my review with you.

Non-Spoiler Review

When I enjoy a book’s writing style, as I do with almost anything Asimov and definitely with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I find myself delighting to read each sentence.  I didn’t do that with this book.  Written in first person present tense, it was difficult for me to get into.

Once I started and committed, I found that I didn’t like the main character: she whined a lot about her personal backstory, but then she wouldn’t tell you anything about it – even at the end, the backstory was implied rather than told, and I was never sure what I should be rooting for.  Main-character Maggie felt flat, like one of those characters I’ve seen described on Tumblr.  On Tumblr, a bunch of people complain that ‘your character’s not X enough’ or ‘I need to read a book where my character is X amount of psychologically broken’ without giving her more depth than that.  Sure – I get that she’s psychologically broken, but I honestly don’t want to read a book about a character that starts out a quiet, unlikable badass who hates her life and ends up a quiet, unlikable badass who hates her life.  I didn’t feel Maggie Hoskie to be dynamic, nor could I ever really get behind her.

Another weird thing?  The book felt like it was diverse for the sake of being diverse.  I was looking forward to a cool book with a new cultural backdrop, but the Navajo/Dine’e aspects didn’t really seem to add to the story.  Some of the concepts were done with a Navajo name that was long and impossible to type because it didn’t use regular, Romanized characters – so I couldn’t even look them up easily to see if I was wrong.

“Oh, but H.R.R.,” you may say, “The book may have been written with Navajo/Dine’e readers as an audience.”  Sure, I’ll give you that possibility, but that is almost worse to me.  The world was post-apocalyptic, and almost all the white people had died in the Big Water event.  The Dine’e survived because they built a big wall that kept all the white refugees out, but the main character claimed it “wasn’t like the old, American wall that failed” and that the Navajo wall was completely different.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the border wall is a waste of money and pretty cruel in intention, but I must say that the author’s Navajo wall is built for the exact same reason as Trump wants to build his wall. The only difference is that it keeps out and hurts white people instead of brown people.

I felt incredibly uncomfortable especially with this scene, but also with much of how Roanhorse handled race throughout the book. I will give her some benefit of the doubt because her narrator could have been bad (i.e. a terrible example of an unreliable narrator), but it was extremely difficult to tell what was her literary message and what was the opinions of her narrator. When a world other than the one we live in must be introduced, we have no option other than to trust the narrator’s assessment as mostly true. This made the main character’s statements about race incredibly disconcerting to me, because it felt like you were supposed to believe that white people were inherently evil.

Anyway, the book just felt hypocritical.  Is that weird?  I don’t know.  I almost hate admitting it in a review because it makes white-bread me look bad, but the book just felt like there was no factor redeeming enough for me to like it.  I was really disappointed.  Either way, I sure won’t be reading the next installment in the series.

*NOTE: This section was edited to soften some of the language.

SPOILERS REVIEW

This is going to be pretty short.

Like I said above, the main character – Maggie – kept complaining about her backstory.  Up until nearly the end of the book, she continued this trend, and then finally we get to know that she did have sex with Neizghani (probably), and that it was an abusive relationship (probably).  But none of it was clear, and it didn’t quite make sense to me.  I feel like this is a massive shame, because as others (like Tom Darby) have pointed out, women on Indian reservations have it pretty rough.  It could have been a great thing to point out.

Also, the twists fell flat to me.  What I like in a twist is two things: 1) I don’t want to see it coming, at least not exactly, and 2) I want to be able to recall things from earlier that “make sense now” after the reveal.  Neither of the big ‘twists’ in Trail of Lightning did that for me.  One of them I saw coming from miles away and never understood why Maggie couldn’t see it.  The other I thought didn’t have enough evidence left beforehand or even storyline tension to back up.

It just wasn’t a fun read.

Next week:

Next week, I’m reading Andy Weir’s The Martian.  Highly awarded and recommended, I hope this book lives up to its hype!

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Trail of Lightning

  1. crispina kemp says:

    Your last comment noted, especially since I have the same requirement. Looking forward to next week’s review.
    And on the subject of non-white writers, in my teens and early twenties I read extensively the novels of Frank Yerby, some of which were set in the *deep slaving south*. What I didn’t know then, was that Yerby himself was black.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I really don’t know if I should have used different language. Other people (on different platforms) have mentioned that I should have said how it made me feel rather than call it out as racist, but I’m pretty sure that if a white person had written a book like this with the racial roles reversed, they would have been called out on it way before now. What I’m wondering is if the first person narrator is what clogged up this book’s message. I didn’t like the voice of the narrator, so that could have been what made me think of the story as racist.

      I don’t know… I’m just feeling frustrated by this review because I couldn’t quite make it sound reasonable…

      • crispina kemp says:

        And here’s me thinking the purpose of a review is to state one’s opinion. Isn’t that what you’ve done? You ought not to say it’s a wonderful story, if you don’t think it was. Lots of books don’t appeal to me, for whatever reason. Am I wrong not to like them?

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I just know that there are books written in diverse settings that are *so* well done. “Binti” (at least the first one – I’m not quite sure the third one made sense to me) was great. “Beloved” (Tony Morrison, so a bit like cheating) was one of the most exciting, heart-wrenching, and yet artful stories on the fucking planet. So I know it can be done. But then there’s books like this, which frustrate me and make me feel like the current culture is to publish diverse things whether or not they’re good.

      I feel like tons of people would praise this book, but I hate to say that I feel like it’d be because of its diverse elements, not because it’s actually good.

  2. D. Wallace Peach says:

    I love reading books where I end up enlightened by different cultures, viewpoints, and experiences. That happens when the author creates compelling narratives and characters who draw me in and make me care about them and their experiences. If you think about it, that’s a requirement of any book in any cultural setting in any genre). It sounds like the author wasn’t able to accomplish that goal. Thanks for the honest and insightful review, HRR.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I’ve read other people’s reviews, and they were able to get more out of it than me. For me, I couldn’t get over how much I didn’t care about the main character and how the book didn’t quite feel right.

  3. Chelsea Owens says:

    Haven’t read the book so I’m depending on what you said. I hate any book that’s flat and not subtle in outlining the world.

    I like what you said about the culture, too: that it needs to play into the story and be unique and whatnot. Just telling readers it’s there doesn’t count.

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