Blogging the Nebulas: Trail of Lightning Shocks Urban Fantasy Back to Life

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

Trail of Lightning immerses the reader into a profoundly altered world by first introducing you to a scenario familiar in contemporary fantasy. Maggie Hoskie is fighter-for-hire who has been in self-imposed seclusion after a job gone bad cost her a partner, but she is lured back into the fray by the residents of a small town, who enlist her to find a missing child. As she sets out on the job, we begin to explore her world, a place called Dinétah, which was a Navajo reservation in the western U.S., before the waters rose and drowned the earth.

With the death of the Fifth World—our world—and the birth of the Sixth, the old powers have returned. Dinétah is a largely functioning enclave in an unstable world, encircled by a wall 50 feet high. The missing child was taken by monsters, and Maggie is a monster hunter of the Diné. Her lost partner was the folk hero Niezghání, returned with the old gods at the end of the world and the start of the new.

The monsters who took the child turn out to be something unknown to Maggie, animated by outsider magic. We follow her on a search for answers across Dinétah and out beyond the wall. As she’s been largely holed up feeling sorry for herself since everything went wrong with Niezghání, her reemergence triggers a series of uncomfortable, if not downright painful, confrontations with people from her past, and leads to a few interesting introductions. Maggie herself is a standoffish survivor, with a narrative voice of the sort that what looks like candor can actually be masking painful truths she is hiding even from herself. She is complex, compelling, and just plain cool.

Trail of Lightning is an audacious take on the conventions of both urban fantasy and the post-apocalyptic novel. Even though it takes place after a devastating global cataclysm, the maudlin, elegiac tone one can find in post-apocalyptic fiction is absent, replaced instead with a winsome pragmatism: Maggie Hoskie picks herself up after her own personal endtimes to seek her prickly place in the new world.

Why it will win:

The world of Trail of Lightning is predicated on the old gods returning, but the setting feels wholly new: by looking to Indigenous history, legends, beliefs, and concerns to build an urban fantasy setting, Roanhorse has crafted a transformative take on timeworn genre tropes. Everything old is new again. I’ve personally put this book in the hands of three or four people with divergent interests, and they’ve all enjoyed it, because it is a rip-roaring tale with tons of action and excitement, yet it never loses its grounding in character. It’s a book that demands to be read in a single sitting. I honestly haven’t had as much fun reading a novel in a long while, and I maybe read too much.

It has the setting and concerns of many past Nebula winners, taking place, as it does, in that near-future period that makes for a fertile ground for commentary about the here and now. It twists and amplifies current events, resulting in mordantly ironic details—consider that what was once a neglected Indigenous reservation is now surrounded by a 50-foot wall that keeps the rest of a ravening America out. The novel mirrors some aspects of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, which won Best Novel honors in 2000: a protagonist with a strong voice who isn’t in it to be “likable”; a mid- or post-apocalyptic setting; a grounding in tight-knit community set apart. Like American Gods, which won in 2003, the old gods walk its haunted world. And while it may be a lot of fun, it’s operating on a deeper level as well. This are all the kinds of things other writers respect and appreciate, and it is other writers who, after all, make up the voting pool for the Nebulas.

Why it won’t win:

As usual, the reasons for why I think the book will win often dovetail with the reasons why I think it might not. While Trail of Lightning is a new take on genre, it’s new in another way: it is Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut. First novels do win—most recently 2014’s Ancillary Justice and 2017’s All the Birds in the Sky, though technically the latter was only a first genre novel. But as an industry award, longstanding connections within the industry matter. (Consider also that 2017 was an atypical Nebula year: five of the six novels nominated were debuts, and the sixth was a sequel.)

Roanhorse is not an unknown, of course—she picked up both a Nebula and a Hugo last year for her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”. Still, Trail of Lightning is a first novel, with the occasional variances in pacing or tone evident when a novelist is honing her craft.

Moreover, I don’t think an urban or contemporary fantasy has a great shot at the prize, even one as singular as this. Nebula voters, when they have gone for fantasy over sci-fi, have historically bent to the more traditional variety, like the fairytale pastiche of Naomi Novik’s 2016 winner Uprooted. Last year’s victor, N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, is also a fantasy novel, but one augmented with strong epic and science fictional elements, not to mention a far future setting. The last (arguable) urban fantasy to win was Jo Walton’s Among Others, which brings us back to my first point: Novik, Jemisin, and Walton were all well-established novelists when they took home their prizes. We can point to a first-timer winning with a science fiction novel (like Ann Leckie). If past precedent tells us anything, it’s that a first-timer writing urban or contemporary fantasy faces a tougher fight.

Still, if nothing else, Maggie Hoskie is certainly a fighter, and Trail of Lightning is an incredibly strong first novel, with a killer voice and a richly realized world. Its sequel, Storm of Locusts, is even better.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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