When the waters rose, the monsters came back…
Classifying sub-genres is weird.1 I put Trail of Lightning into the urban fantasy box from a look at the cover, and, to be fair, it feels like an urban fantasy book, with an independent female monster hunter on a modern reservation,23 even if it is strictly post apocalyptic modern fantasy, or a non-cyberpunk Shadowrun. However two things make Trail stand out in an otherwise crowded field: a much darker, more morally ambiguous tone than is typical in urban fantasy, and a strong sense of identity in the Navajo setting and mythology.
The tone comes out early with a statement of intent, “I’m the person you hire when the heroes have already come home in body bags”, and hits hard with an attack against children that never feel exploitative. This carries over to the characters, where everyone, from our cranky heroine through to the immortal hero who is also a bit of an arsehole, is compromised or difficult in someway. In spite of this, the book never feels dour, breaking up the grey with spots of humor and splashes of violence that keep it moving and make it feel of a piece with much lighter urban fantasy novels.
I don’t have a strong grounding in Native American culture, but Roanhorse does an excellent job of dolling out the intricacies of Navajo social interaction and culture that immersed me in the world without relying on exposition dumps. Similarly, while I have a pop culture exposure to American myths and legends, they are given a nuance and character that suggest an intimacy with these stories that I found extremely compelling. This authentic feeling combines with the ambiguous tone to put a new, more dangerous shine on familiar characters like Coyote, as well as providing deeper cuts in Navajo stories. Indeed, when it comes to the monsters in the book, I don’t know whether they are the authors creations or mythological beasts, but they were creepy and novel, something fairly unusual in books about monster hunters.
Trail isn’t a perfect book however. It succumbs to some of the ‘romance’ tropes of urban fantasy that don’t feel earned in the context of the darker tone the story stakes out. It also feels that after a couple of hundred pages of deliberate story telling it rushes to its ending, undermining some of the impressive and intricate plotting that lead us there. However these are minor wrinkles in a book that offers a new take on a somewhat moribund genre.
For those looking for novel urban fantasy with a bit of an edge.