Tue
Mar 22 2011 10:03am

Nebula Romances: M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star

The first thing I noticed about the “Best Novel” finalists for this year’s Nebula Awards was that five of the six nominees were women writers—and I wasn’t seeing any hint of backlash from the science fiction and fantasy community, like I had among literary fiction insiders in response to the 2004 National Book Award shortlist. The next thing I noticed was that several of the titles appeared to be paranormal romance—in the broadest sense of the term, that is: a romance novel with a significant fantasy element. What’s up with that, I wondered, and set about reading some of those nominated novels, beginning with M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star.

Hobson’s debut novel is full-on romance in the “opposites attract” mode. The heroine, Emily Edwards, is a witch in rural California who’s already decided to cast a love spell on the town’s richest bachelor so she can provide for her financially struggling adoptive father. But “she was no cheat,” Hobson emphasizes; “she’d take on the job of being a pleasant and loyal wife just as she’d taken on Pap’s magical work.” The spell backfires, but not without attracting the notice of Dreadnought Stanton, a smug warlock from the Mirabilis Institute of the Credomantic Arts who’s been sent out to proselytize about the benefits of modern magical technique. The two wind up investigating a report of  trouble up in the mountains; as Dreadnought tells Emily, “I can’t let a female with such dangerously antique notions about magic . . . face a pack of zombie miners alone.” For her troubles, Emily gets a strange, magic-sucking gem embedded in her hand, and Dreadnought offers to escort her to the Institutes’s San Francisco office, where they hope to learn more about the “Native Star,” as the jewel is called, and whether it can be removed.

Hobson plays this relationship out against the backdrop of an 1870s America with a history almost exactly like our own, except that in this world magic is real and has been for centuries. (One of the few potential flaws in the imagined setting is the minimal impact magic seems to have had on global politics, although references to things like a prominent Aztec doomsday cult may indicate that there’s more to Hobson’s world than she’s letting on here.) The magical systems, complete with oddities like “biomechanical flying machines,” are carefully thought out: Stanton’s credomantic powers get their strength from everyone else’s belief, so the Institute publishes dime novels about the adventures of warlocks to fire the public’s imagination, while Emily practices (per Stanton’s description) “standard Ozark herbalism, overlaid with elements of old Scottish Wicca.” And the competition between magical schools has cultural consequences; as a feminist witch explains to Emily, “there is not one Warlock in the world who will give you credit for being anything better than a brazen hussy.”

Except, of course, Dreadnought Stanton, whose arrogant demeanor gradually fades to reveal a profoundly damaged romantic hero, made even more appealing by his refusal to accept the conventional powers and prestige due to him as the son of a (implicitly corrupt) United States Senator. His relationship with Emily may begin with cutting remarks in both directions—“Your comfort with extortion is an extremely ugly personal trait,” he tells her, while she observes, “You only ever thank me when I save your life”—but soon enough Emily will find herself realizing how nice his smile is, and growing increasingly frustrated with his refusal to embrace his own feelings. (Neither of them, it turns out, believed they deserved to be happy; Emily is lucky enough to snap out of the delusion first.)

As for the Native Star, Emily and Stanton will discover that it’s linked to the 19th-century magical equivalent of a global warming crisis—which, along with the hints about Emily’s true background, remains unresolved at the story’s end. Like Gail Carriger’s Soulless, The Native Star has the feel of a standalone romance out of which a lengthier series can be sprung, and there are clear indications that sequels are on the way. If Hobson is as effective at deepening the layers of her imagined world as Carriger has proven to be, it will be interesting to see where she takes her couple after their whirlwind (and refreshingly chaste) courtship. In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind having a peek at the scholarly article where they first learn about the mystical properties of the Native Star: “Prominent Mysteries in the Occult Sciences: Frontiers That Remain Unexplored, Presenting Various Intriguing Fields of Study for the Warlocks of Future Decades.” There’s got to be at least four or five good story ideas in that....

This article and its ensuing discussion originally appeared on romance site Heroes & Heartbreakers.


Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors, and the master of ceremonies for Lady Jane’s Salon, a monthly reading series in New York City for romance authors and their fans.

7 comments
dmg
1. dmg
I noticed this novel on the short-list for this year's Nebula, so, with no hesitation, I purchased it. And moved it near to the top of my reading pile... until I read your review.

"Paranormal romance"...? Whether a fad or trend, its exhaustion cannot come soon enough for this reader.

Thank you.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
2. Sharat Buddhavarapu
Sounds like something I'd want to write, and read. I think it's a bit sad that people write things off simply because they use tropes of the genre. Good writing is good writing, and anyone who is getting bored of one trope can always refresh themselves with other books. Fantasy and Sci-fi fandom aside, I like a wider reading spectrum because it allows me to trip through genre-specific tropes with a decided innocence.
Ron Hogan
3. RonHogan
Right. To me, that's like saying you wouldn't read John Scalzi's Old Man's War, the best science fiction novel of the last decade (as determined by readers here!), because Baen Books has already gotten plenty of mileage out of military SF.

(And I guess another reason I could be mentioning Old Man's War is that it's got a significant "romance" component to it, as do at least two other novels on that top ten list with which I'm familiar, The Name of the Wind and Kushiel's Dart.)
dmg
4. Madeline F
Oh honestly. "I heard it could maybe loosely be described as paranormal romance, according to a guy who writes about romance for a romance blog, so I'm not going to read it"?

I read this book, and yeah, there's a strong element of romance. But there's also plenty of non-romance story. Pull on your big girl panties.

Now, as for the book itself, I was kind of sad that I didn't like it better. Fine start, fine world, but it goes off-track about mid-way through when it largely abandons the plot set up at the beginning and sets off on a literal railroad to see if some NPC can solve everything. Wastes too much time. The vicious sexism aimed at the main character at the end wasn't to my taste, and she doesn't get to crush it appropriately even if it was.

But it's a fine book, better than Seanan McGuire's first, if you like that sort of thing.
Ron Hogan
5. RonHogan
The train ride itself didn't bother me -- I figured it was as good a rationale as any to get to see as much of Magical America as we could fit into one novel -- although I was a bit frustrated by Emily's inability to remember the one simple fact about Stanton's health that could have saved a lot of time and trouble along the way.

You raise another good point with the sexism: It's almost Stieg Larsson-esque the way the only good men in the world are Stanton and Emily's beloved dad (and maybe the one other guy in Emily's hometown), and nearly every other man is a jerk, to the degree that one guy feels perfectly comfortable lobbing sexual insults at a guest in his place of business. As I was reading, I took all that as simply an extension of the refutation of Stanton's holding up the Institute as the be-all and end-all of awesome magic, as well as an illustration of the condescending attitude that the feminist witches are trying to challenge, followed by the overcoming of a more direct menace (a fairly standard climactic ramp-up for romances). But I may be reading these elements less viscerally than others might.
dmg
6. ediFanoB
For all of you who don't know the sequel THE HIDDEN GODDESS will be published on 26th April 2011.
M F
7. Madeline F
Sorry, my use of "railroad" was a callback to a common term in roleplaying gaming, which refers to a plot that the characters have to go through every bit of, no matter what better ideas they have. Confusing here, since I'm referring to something slightly different.

To just go whole-hog on spoilers:

...

Past the point where they get on the train, so far as I recall, the main character never makes another decision to take action. The rest of the book just plays out with her as a viewer. What I like in books is characters I'm interested in trying to do things, with plot around that.

And the sexism, I find it annoying, even in books. What was particularly offputting here, though, was that Emily never got to show that weaselman's sexism was wrong. Her part in the last chunk of the book, so far as I recall, was to be "threatened maiden #1". Disgusting weaselman could have been redeemed if his purpose in the book was as a foil for Emily, but instead he just lampshades unfortunate plot choices at the end.

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