Actual rating: 3.5 stars
Representation is so important in fiction.. It’s much easier to sink into a character’s story when they resemble you in some way. For centuries there was very little healthy representation of anyone outside of heterosexual white males of European descent. Characters who fell outside of these restrictions tended to be only secondary characters, and were often portrayed as two-dimensional caricatures of the race or sex or religion they represented. There were exceptions, of course, but they were few and far between, and were often authored by women using male pseudonyms. That still left many groups utterly unrepresented, though. Thankfully, in the past few decades this lack has been addressed, and the variety of representation in literature has skyrocketed.
When I first heard about this book, I was incredibly excited. I’ve thought for years that there was a lack in urban fantasy. There are so many urban fantasy series that take place in the America, but few involve the culture that’s been here the longest: that of Native Americans. Yes, some of these involve Coyote in some side plot, but he is but one of the many spirits and deities spread across a multitude of tribes.
Roanhorse’s tale takes place within a walled Navajo reservation after an apocalyptic flood has destroyed much of the world beyond their walls. The flood unleashed a wave of magic upon the Navajo nation, magic that is ancient, that has slumbered for centuries but has finally returned. Not only do spirits and deities once again rove among men and monsters walk the earth, but the people once again possess powers based on their clans. Medicine men are once again imbued with great power and insight into the spirit realm. I found the whole Navajo mythos incredibly fascinating.
I have no Navajo blood in me, but my great-grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee, and my husband’s great-grandmother grew up on the Sioux Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. While our heritage might be generations removed, it’s something both of us deeply respect. When our band went on tour, one of our stops was actually the Rosebud Reservation. Chris was able to visit some of the deepest roots of his family’s history, and we were able to see what Rez life was like. It was both one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and one of the saddest. History and culture and pride mingled with poverty and resignation. We both had incredible wells of conflicting emotions within us by the time we left. Roanhorse does a great job of capturing that duality of splendor and squalor in this first novel of her Sixth World trilogy.
So, why didn’t I rate this book higher? The reason is twofold. First, the book is almost unrelentingly dark. Even moments that were meant to be humorous always held a tinge of bitterness. I understand that it was a dark situation and that the main character had known little joy in her life, but that level of darkness with no relief is difficult to stomach. Which brings me to my second issue: our main character. Maggie is a Monsterhunter, and she’s an utter badass. However, she was incredibly difficult to relate to. Her unhappiness was so total, and she worked so hard to keep others out, that it was nearly impossible to feel much empathy for her because it was hard to get close to her. Since we were viewing other characters through her eyes, this affected the development of the supporting cast, as well. Maggie does loosen up some by the end of the book, and we are able to relate more to both her and the other characters more in the final few chapters than in the entire rest of the book. But by that point, the damage had been done; it’s hard to care about the outcome of the story if you aren’t allowed to care about the characters until too late.
While this was an interesting story with pretty fantastic world building, I’m still uncertain if I’ll continue reading the series when the next book is released. But I’m overly sensitive to darkness, and I have a feeling that there are many readers who will enjoy this story far more than I did. Even if I don’t continue, I have immense respect for Roanhorse and the representation she has provided for the Navajo people in particular and Native Americans in general.
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