Storm of Locusts, Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga 978-1-53441-353-5, $27.99, 320pp, hc) April 2019.
In 2018, Rebecca Roanhorse burst onto the urban fantasy scene with Trail of Lightning, the first in the Sixth World series about post-apocalyptic monster hunter Maggie Hoskie. The book had wonderfully complex characterization, sharply written ass-kicking, and a compelling apocalypse scenario with fresh fantasy elements drawn from indigenous stories. Many readers have waited with great impatience for Roanhorse’s second novel, Storm of Locusts. Unfortunately, this book cannot live up to its predecessor. It has a lot of the details and atmosphere that made Trial of Lightning such a great read, but it’s written more like a YA novel, with an accompanying lack of density. Organic character drama lags behind because-I-said-so plot engineering. As a second effort, it wouldn’t be too disappointing if it didn’t follow such a satisfying debut.
In Storm of Locusts, Maggie goes on a rescue mission for Kai, the charismatic healer she paired up with in Trail of Lightning. Kai has left Dinétah semi-voluntarily with Gideon, a kind of cult leader whose powers relate to metal – much like Magneto’s – and locusts. Some of Gideon’s group have the ability to sing people into a state of suggestion or hypnosis, though that doesn’t work on Maggie. “The locust has much to teach us,” he tells Maggie, in the climactic showdown between them. “They are resilient creatures, dormant most of their lives. But when they rise, they rise in number and they are unstoppable…. They destroy to make room for the new.” Gideon’s plan is to cause a second apocalypse in Dinétah, and Maggie must stop him. Along the way, she partners with Rissa, a prickly woman warrior, and becomes a mentor to a teenage girl, Ben.
The problem with all this is its inevitability – the sense that it’s arising out of Roanhorse’s need to create a plot, rather than because it makes sense. Maggie worries that Kai may have purposely joined forces with Gideon, but the reader can’t quite believe that. In a sequence in Knifetown, a hideous settlement which permits organ harvesting and human slavery, the characters are in just enough danger before they’re rescued – not too much, not causing permanent damage. Maggie’s group clearly meets up with a certain character on a boat because he has a quest item, not because anything else in the book points to or away from their meeting. And, in the climax, Gideon’s villainy reaches proportions usually found in a Bond film. Since Roanhorse’s first book was so original and so tightly written, these tropes and narrative setups that don’t amount to anything are doubly frustrating.
Further, there is so little complexity here. Maggie’s struggle with her identity in Trail of Lightning, her coming to terms with a poisonous mentor and lover, has been reduced to a pledge not to kill anyone unnecessarily. Knowing what she is capable of when her powers are in full effect, this seems daft, like asking Beyoncé to whisper instead of singing. Maggie runs up against three gods: Mósí (Cat), Ma’ii (Coyote), and Nohoilpi (the god of games and gambling), but all of them either help her or allow her to continue on her mission without much conflict. With Nohoilpi, she plays a game about as exciting as shuffleboard, involving four shoes and a bottlecap. It’s not meant to be an action scene, but it contributes to the general drained feeling that pervades the book, as if the ambition of Trail of Lightning has been purposely deflated.
Roanhorse still has a gift for matching description to emotion:
She opens her mouth, and a high humming song flows from her lips. It surrounds me, and for a moment I feel that sun-soaked warmth of late summer again, something fragile and beautiful from an idyllic childhood. But it’s a childhood that was never mine. It’s fake, something pretty that has nothing to do with me. An approximation of a perfect childhood too foreign a seduction to lure me in.
She hasn’t lost her sense of humor: “This is the apocalypse, lady. Who cares if some nutjob with wings wants to blow some shit up?” But this book, composed of a handful of set pieces and lacking a genuine character journey, feels much too thin on the ground for a writer with such talent. Perhaps it’s merely a sophomore slump, but Storm of Locusts won’t scratch the itch initially set up by the Sixth World.
This review and more like it in the November 2019 issue of Locus.
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