I’ve wanted to read this one for a while now – it’s been on my TBR cart for almost a year. It was my suggestion for my distance book club this month, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, and it won the popular vote. So woohoo!
After a Great Flood and Energy Wars, the landscape of the United States is decimated. But Dinétah, what used to be the Navajo Reservation, is completely reborn. Walls have sprung up around its borders and within those walls, the gods, heroes and monsters of legend roam the land again. Maggie has spent years “apprenticed” to one of those heroes, learning from him how to hunt and slay monsters. But when he leaves her suddenly and Maggie uncovers evidence of a monster worse than any she’s faced so far, she must reluctantly team up with Kai, whose clan powers for healing complement her own for violence. And together, they set out to find the truth behind the killings, a truth that will also force Maggie to confront the traumas of her past.
This book drops us right into the action, with some violent and gory opening scenes. And then it basically never lets up. The combination of short chapters and constant discoveries/confrontations kept me turning pages and on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. A really well-paced and fast-to-read fantasy. That opening also sets the scene for the bleak and sort of depressing post-apocalyptic feel that was exactly right for the setting and situation. Relatedly, that ambience given to us with the world-building really matches Maggie’s personality and inner struggles as well. She is tough, strong and intense – she’s had to be to survive what life has thrown at her. And in some ways it’s been important and necessary. But in other ways, her view of herself, the “evil” she sees in her own violence and clan powers, has caused her to put up tons of barriers between herself and anyone who might care for her (or, in her mind, get too close). Also, as with many similar psychological outlooks, we see the dependence she developed on a single person as a hindrance to her personal growth and it ends up becoming a trauma that she has to face down/overcome. That piece of this story is heart-wrenchingly honest and very well portrayed – it’s a great “monsters on the outside vs monsters within” parallel/metaphor situation.
And now would be a good time to note that I really liked the “romance” between Maggie and Kai. It is well-written and developed to bring Maggie our of her self-induced isolation. Kai helps her pull down some of those walls she’s put up between herself and others, but at a pace and in a way that seems believable. Maggie keeps all her sharp edges and none of the “changes” come fast or easy (or consistently), which comes across authentically and makes her small movements/shifts, when they do happen, more compelling. And I loved the way Maggie and Kai’s story ends. I mean, it was sudden and harsh and there’s no for-sure redemption (at least not until, hopefully, book two), but I also like how deep that meant their relationship needed to be and I was into the slower-burn, not rushed, way it played out. Overall, this was just one of my favorite endings that I’ve read in a long time – left me wanting more but in a satisfying way (especially regarding Maggie’s internal evolution).
The one other thing I loved about this book was the Navajo mythology that is the base for the post-apocalyptic setting, as well as the “magic” systems. Reading about the monsters and heroes of Navajo folklore, like Maggie’s “teacher” Neizghání and the trickster Coyote, Ma’ii, to name two of the major ones. Also, the way that clan powers manifest (what brings them out) and how they are determined by one’s clan relations. It was just really fascinating and interesting. And it’s the first own voices novel of it’s kind that I’ve read (similar to the native/first nations folklore that I read about for the first time earlier this year in Gods of Jade and Shadow) and I’m really loving this little fictional/fantasy trend and hope it continues, because I want more! The only thing I have to complain about here is that at the end, when the full “story” comes out (no spoilers, I promise), I was not fully clear on what Coyote’s actual motivations were for his actions. I mean, I know he’s a trickster, but it seemed more than that, and I couldn’t quite tease it out.
One last point, one of my favorite things about most of the Native American/First Nations fantasy/speculative fiction that I’ve read has been the focus on nature. It seems like a fairly obvious focal point, knowing the importance of plants/animals/nature in their traditions and folklore (and I don’t know a lot, to be clear). But I love the way that that reverence of nature remains central, often in the form of explorations of what could/will happen due to global warming and general human destruction of the Earth we live on. Both here and in Future Home of the Living God, I enjoyed those messages of reaping what we are sowing, so to speak, on that front.
This is definitely a book I would recommend to fantasy lovers, as well as anyone looking for a great Native American own voice novel. I learned a lot and enjoyed doing so, all while being totally entertained and not wanting to step away from all the fantastic action (though I do want to warn that there is quite a bit of violence/gore of various kinds – it never felt gratuitous, but it was ever-present in a reasonable way considering the circumstances). Definitely plan to pick up the next book in the series, when it comes out!
A few quotes/passages that particularly struck me, as always:
“This wasn’t our end. This was or rebirth. […] It was beautiful. It was ours. And we were safe. Safe from the outside world, at least. But sometimes the worst monsters are the ones within.”
“And I am left alone to hunt the monsters by myself, both the visible kind that steal away little girls to eat their flesh, and the invisible kind that live under the skin, eating at the little girl from inside.”
“‘Some people believe you destroy your enemies by making them your friends.’”