The Native Star opens in the year 1876 with one Miss Emily Edwards, age 25, a backwoods witch from the Sierra Nevadas with financial difficulties and an aging father to support. With the prolonged nastiness of the Civil War receding into the past, the U.S. economy is booming. The magical-industrial complex is building the nation faster than you can say “What development permit?” The boom has brought with it a tide of big-city potions, from a manufacturer called Baugh’s Patent Magics. These nostrum are making it all the way to the small town of Lost Pine, where they’re chipping away at Emily’s livelihood dime by dime.
Though Emily is generally quite the honourable woman, she doesn’t fancy the prospect of watching her Pap’s health slide downhill as the two of them slowly starve. Limited options draw her to every nineteenth-century woman’s obvious career choice: marriage. She fixes her eye on the town’s most prosperous lumberman, a decent fellow who will make a terrific husband. All she needs to seal the deal is a wee little love spell… and the nerve to go through with it.
Naturally, things go badly awry from the moment Em hatches her plan. Oh, Dag falls for her, he falls with a tooth-rattling kerthump and gets up ready to propose. But that only makes it worse when a rumor arises that there’s a problem with the undead workers at the local coal mine. Emily runs off to check, abandoning Dag in mid-woo.
And with her goes Dreadnought Stanton.
Stanton is a big city sorcerer with annoying know it all attitude and prissy behavior that make Em wild with… well, let’s call it impatience. Their investigation into the mine is perfectly innocent. Zombie workers really are rising from the depths, even though Stanton insists this shouldn’t be possible. The two are fortunate to get away with their lives, but they don’t quite escape unscathed. Instead, Em ends up with a mysterious blue stone stuck right in the meat of her palm.
The stone, it turns out, is valuable and powerful, an object of desire to sorcerers who will gladly kill its possessor. It can deaden magic, too, which means Emily cannot release poor Dag, who by now has been driven into a towering, enchantment-fueled, jealous rage. The stone must go, and so Emily and Stanton are soon squabbling their way on horseback to San Francisco in search of help, with all manner of greedy mystics hot on their heels.
M.K. Hobson’s fiction has been wowing me ever since I read “Comus of Central Park” a few years ago. She has a sly, wicked and thoroughly delicious sense of humor; I have seen people rolling in the aisles at her readings. This wit is in full, glorious play in her first novel, out today from Bantam Spectra.
The Native Star feels very much like a rollick through a rough-edged yet charming, land that might have been. The frontier America setting matches well with the backwoods magic practiced by Em—and loftily criticized by Stanton. Fans of the steampunk aesthetic will love the fantastic contraptions built by the novel’s mechanic wizards. (Hobson herself refers to the book as “bustlepunk.”) It has a strong ecofantasy thread, in its depiction of a bunch of magic-using engaged in rabid, uncontrolled nationbuilding, all of them cutting corners with sorcery that nobody quite understands, all of them ignoring not just the possible side effects but the ones that are charging toward them, bellowing and breathing septic tank fumes.
Emily is a delightful protagonist, and I’m with her all the way: she’s unpretentious, smart, never quite a lady and passionately, unflinchingly honest. As for Stanton… once you get past his huffiness, I defy you not to swoon. He’s got the angsty Rochester thing going on bigtime, a nice Mr. Darcy backbone, and he can work magic. Even his horses are sexy.
It is one of the paradoxes of reviewing books that it is actually harder to do well and fairly when there is nothing conspicuously wrong with a novel you’ve just read. When one can honestly say “All of these elements were great, but the author could have done better with this,” it sounds well considered and thoughtful. You’re able to give people an idea of why they might like it, and why they might not.
But, sometimes, you have to concede that a book is a perfect match for you as a reader. If such books didn’t exist we would probably still take pleasure in reading. But we are all looking for that match, aren’t we, engaged in the quest for The (next) One, for love at first paragraph. The Native Star worked for me on every level: as a fantasy, an adventure, and a romance. It is set in a historical era that interests me greatly, and opens up in a part of the world where I spent some of the best days of my childhood. For me, it’s a book that can do no wrong.
Obviously, if you don’t like romances, funny novels, adventures, or idiosyncratic magic systems—and not everyone does—this book might not be the one for you. For everyone else, Hobson’s first novel is an obscenely well-written romp with a lovable heroine and enough thematic heft to satisfy those of us who want to find just a bit of cake underneath the layers of creamy, delicious frosting. Give it a look-you won’t be sorry.
Alyx Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.