The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
Published: Spectra, 2010
Award Nominations: Nebula Award
“The year is 1876. In the small Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine, the town witch, Emily Edwards, is being run out of business by an influx of mail-order patent magics. Attempting to solve her problem with a love spell, Emily only makes things worse. But before she can undo the damage, an enchanted artifact falls into her possession—and suddenly Emily must flee for her life, pursued by evil warlocks who want the object for themselves.
Dreadnought Stanton, a warlock from New York City whose personality is as pompous and abrasive as his name, has been exiled to Lost Pine for mysterious reasons. Now he finds himself involuntarily allied with Emily in a race against time—and across the United States by horse, train, and biomechanical flying machine—in quest of the great Professor Mirabilis, who alone can unlock the secret of the coveted artifact. But along the way, Emily and Stanton will be forced to contend with the most powerful and unpredictable magic of all—the magic of the human heart.” ~from barnesandnoble.com
I read The Native Star thanks to a dare from the Calico Reaction blog. This is Hobson’s first novel, and she has described the style as “bustlepunk”. A sequel, The Hidden Goddess, has recently been published. The Native Star is definitely a complete novel, but a number of interesting subjects not fully explored in this first book have left me eager to read the sequel.
The Native Star is an exciting mix of alternate history, action-adventure, fantasy, mystery, and romance. The setting is late 19th century United States, but in this fantastical version of history, society is being largely shaped by magic instead of industry. Hobson’s magical world is richly developed, from the rural family-taught practitioners to uptight University warlocks. It’s a world where people can transfer their souls to objects by magic and monstrous jackrabbit “Aberrancies” threaten unwary travelers. The three specific schools of magic are Animancy, related to spirits and living things, Credomancy, based on the power of belief, and Sangrimancy, a dark and powerful art fueled by blood. There were interesting quirks in the system, such as the fact that anti-magic religious fanatics unwittingly use a kind of Credomancy against magic users through the force of their belief.
I was a little thrown off by the prevalence of sexism, racism and classism, particularly in the highly educated warlock circles, but these attitudes were definitely portrayed in a negative light. There was a witch’s rights association, at least, to combat a bit of the sexism. I think these flaws in Hobson’s society served to make it feel even more plausible as an alternate magical history.
Many of the characters in the story, even beyond the protagonists, were interestingly multi-layered. It seemed that everyone had secrets, or were more (or less) than they appeared. Emily and Stanton both had their flaws, but I still found them to be very sympathetic leads. In my opinion, they both had very abrasive personalities, but they were also both shaped by their share of troubles. The side characters, such as the gambling witch in San Francisco, the overly gabby train passenger Rose Hibble, and even Professor Mirabilis, all had their own stories and their own secrets to keep.
The story itself is very fast-paced and energetic, but a bit standard in scope. After Emily inadvertently comes into possession of a priceless magical artifact, she and Stanton find themselves on the run from the many dangerous factions that want to claim it. All the while, they’re trying to figure out what exactly that artifact is, and what should be done about it. While the fast pace, interesting surroundings, and engaging characters made the story work for me, the basics of the plot seem almost like a usual action-adventure movie.
The romantic side of the book consisted of a fairly predictable love triangle. On the one hand, Emily has cast a love spell on the local wealthy lumberman of Lost Pine, a truly decent guy she’s known all her life. On the other hand, she can’t stand Dreadnought Stanton! Their personalities grate on each other, he’s sophisticated and arrogant, and he has a mysterious past. Can you guess who she’ll pick? I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite romantic tropes, but I feel that the novel focused much more on magic and adventure than on love. In the end, I felt that the world-building and the vibrant characters more than made up for the somewhat simple fundamental plot.
My Rating: 4/5
The Native Star was a real pleasure to read, which is, I would hope, the goal of most fiction. The exciting “bustlepunk” magical 19th century America, with its evil sangrimancers, raging aberrancies, priggish warlocks and ‘skycladdische’ witches, is an endlessly exciting place for adventure. The characters, from Emily and Stanton to the people they meet along the way, are just as intriguing and complicated as the world they inhabit. The plot, Emily and Stanton fleeing evil or unscrupulous warlocks with an unwanted powerful magical artifact, is pretty standard, but still a fun romp. The romantic subplot is also fairly predictable, but it does not take up a huge portion of the overall story. I found The Native Star to be a very quick and enjoyable read, with a world and characters that I look forward to visiting again in The Hidden Goddess.