When Storm of Locusts, the second book in Rebecca Roanhorse's Sixth World series, begins, the monsterslayer Maggie Hoskie has trapped her teacher and first love, the lightning-god Neizghání, under the ground; killed (impermanently, but still) her lover, the medicine man Kai, who is avoiding her; and reached a careful, exhausted détente with the paramilitary Thirsty Boys, a détente which is verging on friendship. She is brittle, cautious, and trying to recover from the personally cataclysmic events of the first book, Trail of Lightning — but Locusts drops her directly into a much wider cataclysm, one which threatens the continued existence of Dinétah, the post-climate-apocalypse Navajo nation which is her home. Widening is a characteristic feature of Storm of Locusts. There is a widening of scope, as Roanhorse takes her protagonists outside of Dinétah into the Malpais — what remains of the American Southwest after the Big Water reshaped the world. Roanhorse also accomplishes a widening of emotional range, as Maggie begins to allow herself to make friends, especially female friends, and take her place as part of her community when she becomes a mentor and auntie to Ben, a young woman who has clan powers — magic linked to her heritage — like Maggie herself does. But the most significant widening is that of questions of identity, loyalty, and community — because Maggie's adversary in Storm of Locusts is Gideon, a half-Diné man stolen away from his family to be fostered by Mormons, who calls himself the White Locust and preaches an apocalypse that will flood all of Dinétah while providing safety, salvation, and comfort to his followers.
(He also transforms said followers into half-locust creatures, complete with grafted metal wings that allow for true flight — and controls them with locust-song, a sound which induces a will-sapping ecstatic peace.)
Gideon feels betrayed by almost everything around him. By Dinétah, whose god-created walls are closed to him; by his foster brother Aaron, who attempted to kill him (righteously) over his willingness to engage in rape and exploitation; by his white heritage and by his Diné heritage, neither of which give him enough space to build from in the post-Big Water Sixth World; and by the gods of the Diné, whom he believes refuse to favor him — and that feeling drives his plan to drown Dinétah.
It also parallels Maggie's sense of being both betrayed and betraying. In Trail of Lightning she betrayed all of her close ties, and feels abandoned by all of them in turn. But Maggie never wavers in her certainty of where she belongs, even if she isn't sure who she is or how to be herself in a non-destructive fashion. Maggie Hoskie is Diné, and in the course of Storm of Locusts she begins to integrate into a community role, to tie herself willingly to other people. The contrast of responses to betrayal that Roanhorse explores through Gideon and Maggie is one which centers belonging, identity, and connection. It pushes the reader to think about the struggles of being not quite of one people and not quite of another, the problems of not ever really being able to come home to a home that was stolen from you as a child. In this exploration, Storm of Locusts is a triumphant book — one which weaves fundamental questions of assimilation and diaspora into a fast-paced, action-filled adventure that puts a completely Indigenous spin on the post-apocalyptic Wild West narrative.
This is Roanhorse's truest strength: She shows us a world that is scarred by colonization and Western despoliation of the environment, but which is entirely centered in the metaphors, worldview, and long history of the Navajo people. This is the Western seen from the Indigenous perspective, and refashioned entirely thereby.
If Storm of Locusts has weak points, it is in the relatively simple emotional arc of Kai, Maggie's lover and a weather-working medicine man. After the reader spends much of the book wondering if Kai has abandoned Dinétah for Gideon, the climax quickly and painlessly resolves the question of his loyalties, and puts his relationship with Maggie on equally steadier footing. Since so much of Storm of Locusts is deeply concerned with loyalty, betrayal, and kinship, the simplicity of Kai's arc, which could address these same questions quite deeply, is given short shrift.
Nevertheless, this second volume is a worthy sequel to the first Sixth World book: Sharp, exciting, dramatic, and entirely rooted in a Navajo sensibility which is both strikingly new to the genre and should have been with us all along.
Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer, a Byzantinist, and a city planner — the latter two as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller. She tweets @ArkadyMartine. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.