Last year I encountered a new Urban Fantasy series that felt quite different from the usual format, and its first installment,Trail of Lightning, encouraged me to keep an eye out for its sequels: book two of Rebecca Roanohorse’s Sixth World Series is just as engaging as its predecessor but it also left me with mixed feelings, because while I loved what the author did with the characters – both the old and the new ones – part of the storyline felt less defined and at times too… convenient (for want of a better word) to be completely believable. But let’s proceed with order…
The rising oceans have changed the face of the world, and one of the few places where life is still possible is Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation now walled off from the rest of the world. It’s not a totally safe place, though, since ancient gods and monsters – both old and new – share the territory alongside humans. Maggie Hoskie is a monster slayer for hire, and in recent times she also became a god slayer when she vanquished Neizghání, the lightning god who used to be her mentor and lover. It’s now a few weeks after this happened at Black Mesa, where Maggie also had to kill her friend and love interest Kai Arviso, whose healing powers brought him back to life but not back in Maggie’s life, so she’s trying to deal with the aftermath of it all – trying being the operative word…
When she’s called in for help against the dangerous cult of the White Locusts, she learns that the “resurrected” Kai is either their prisoner or a willing adept, and to get to the core of the matter she teams up for a search and rescue mission with two of the Goodacre siblings and a young girl with clan powers, Ben, who has been entrusted to her care. Gathering human and godlike allies along the way, the group ventures from the borders of Dinétah into the Malpais – the devastated outside world – discovering that the White Locusts and their charismatic leader Gideon are planning something that might mean the destruction of all they hold dear.
The narrative elements that made the first book in this series stand out are still here: the walled-in enclave of Dinétah where humans and supernatural beings coexist in this weird world whose face was literally changed by the rising oceans; the fascinating cultural and social milieu of Native Americans that brings a new, intriguing perspective to the genre; the land itself, with its harsh, unforgiving beauty. Maggie remains a fascinating character, her hard-won independence, her self-sufficiency still there but now tempered by the realization that opening herself to other people does not threaten those qualities but rather enhances them. And here comes the biggest change in the interpersonal dynamics of the overall story, because it transforms what early on was a one-woman battle into a group effort and a delightful quest that takes us outside the borders of Dinétah and into the Big, Bad Outside World.
Much as life in the Diné enclave might look difficult, the Malpais proves to be dangerous, and deadly: in the best tradition of post-apocalyptic stories, Maggie and her team encounter an organized gang of slavers and organ traffickers whose settlement of Knifetown has a definite Mad Max quality, complete with what looks like a deranged overlord, while the mention of the neighboring Mormon Kingdom and its theocratic rule fulfills the worst predictions of what could happen with the collapse of civilization. It’s therefore hardly surprising that in this kind of background a cult like that of the White Locusts could easily gain supporters, won over by their leader’s Gideon seductive power and his promise of a new, better world.
Storm of Locusts sees Maggie traveling through these dangers with a crew of allies – friends – that, with the exception of reformed bandit Aaron, is dominated by women: Maggie herself, who’s trying to change her ways and not resort to mindless killing as a way of solving problems, and who is acknowledging her newfound connection to humanity and somehow finding that she enjoys it; Rissa Goodacre, who begins the journey with huge moral reservations toward Maggie and then slowly changes her outlook recognizing there can ben mutual respect and friendship between them; the cat goddess Mosì, whose feline indifference offers some of the lighter moments in the story; and young Ben, the best addition to the series because of what she comes to represent for Maggie.
Ben is a teenager who just suffered a grievous loss on top of earlier childhood trauma, the one that woke her clan powers: Maggie sees much of herself there, and where at first she somehow resents being saddled with the responsibility for the teenager’s safety, she starts to see her earlier self reflected in Ben, recognizing the signs of the downward spiral she traveled in the past, and decides to spare her the same hurtful journey by giving the young woman the support she needs to come to terms with what she is. Despite the tragedy in her recent past, Ben’s character is an engaging counterpoint to Maggie’s, thanks to her youthful enthusiasm and drive that little by little manage to erode Maggie’s hard shell and bring her closer to her forgotten humanity.
Where character exploration offers the best elements in the story, I found that the plot felt less… solid, starting with the sensation that the questing team was never truly in danger: their experience in Knifetown, where it seems Maggie and Rissa might lose their lives and Ben be sold as a slave bride, is resolved fairly quickly by what looks like a deus ex machina set of circumstances. In a similar way, the swift conversion of outlaw Aaron, or the easy help offered by a divinity appearing as a crusty old man, look a little too convenient to feel completely believable. And I’m still not convinced by the soundness of Kai’s motivations for joining Gideon’s cult, or by the mutual bond between Kai and Maggie, which does not offer solid vibes for me…
Still, whatever doubts I might have had about this second installment in the series were vanquished by the closing paragraph of the novel and its ominous promise of more interesting darkness to come: the next book might very well compensate for my partial disappointment with this one.