In her “The Bustlepunk Manifesto,” author M.K. Hobson freely and gleefully admits to swimming in the same literary pool as writers like Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest and Sherwood Smith. Such books are the softer cousins of steampunk—historic romantic fantasies—and as a sub-genre, they are really coming into their own of late. Right now we have not one but two bustlepunk novels on the ballot for the Nebula Award. One of these is Hobson’s first Emily Edwards adventure, The Native Star. The other is Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey.
The Native Star took readers along on Emily’s hazardous journey across America, a romantic and magic-drenched chase which began in the backwoods of California and ended in the all-hallowed Mirabilis Institute of the Credomantic Arts in Manhattan. In the newly released sequel, The Hidden Goddess, Emily confronts her most wily opponent to date: New York Society, with its stifling rules of etiquette and all-too-ready judgments.
A plain-speaking country girl trained in a type of magic referred to—and looked down upon—as animancy, Emily lost her heart to the always-correct, often-pedantic and ever so well-born Dreadnought Stanton in The Native Star. She lost one of her hands, too, and more than a few illusions. It was a rough, rough road to love, and by rights, she and Dreadnought should be entitled to kick back and really get to know each other better. At the very least, they might be planning their wedding.
Instead, the punishment for both their virtue and their victory is more duty, labour and obligations galore: Dreadnought, it seems, must take over leadership of the Institute. Just when he and Emily should be choosing flowers and thinking about honeymoons, he has been sucked into apparently-endless preparations for his Investment as Sophos, a glittering ceremony in its own right and the talk of the city. As Dreadnought’s bride-to-be, Emily is intended as an ornament to the big show. So, while her man works diligently, she is left to practice her ladylike behavior on unforgiving Yankee matrons, to attend poetry readings, and to strive to get on the good side of a future mother-in-law who considers her about as welcome as a dose of the clap.
Holding her temper, ingratiating herself to the parents, and trying to sneak away for an occasional romantic interlude with her fiance would be more than enough to keep most women occupied. But Emily has bigger problems. She’s having visions of the end of the world, and the shadowy Russian organization known as the Sini Mira is still after her. There’s a rival for the the Institute’s Sophos job, and he’s waiting for someone—an unsophisticated bumpkin from California, preferably—to make an error he can exploit to Dreadnought’s ruin.
Finally, and just to cherry up that trouble sundae, Emily’s beloved Pap has given her a vial of traumatic childhood memories that might be the key to learning about her birth parents, unless recovering them unhinges or kills her. Thanks, Pap!
Then again, maybe the very worst thing is that one of Dreadnought’s exes has turned up... and she is horrible beyond words.
The Hidden Goddess is every bit as delightful, funny, suspenseful and complicated as its predecessor. It is a thoroughly mad book, which mixes enchantment, romance and action with hard, nitty-gritty real-life stuff—all the tough parts of embarking on a new relationship, the painful side of coming to know who your beloved really is once the glow of infatuation wears off.
Tackling this side of romance is a bold approach. The thing about a book like The Native Star—the dangerous romp where two people who initially dislike each other (or affect to, anyway) endure great peril and end up in each other’s arms, is that we readers walk away with that incredible feeling of satisfaction. It’s the Happily Ever After we learned to love in fairy tales. We’re wired for it. Part of us doesn’t want a follow-up.
Falling in love in real life, you see, is really a beginning, not an ending. It’s the gateway to all those delightful days of mutual joy and happy memories, to be sure. But it’s also setting up house, fighting off debt, figuring out schools for the kids, and worrying about Mom and her rattling cough. Even in the best circumstances, happily ever after comes bundled with all the stuff we read romantic novels to avoid. We want to let our heroines and their heroes vanish off into an endless sexy dawn.
Of course there’s the other part of us, too, the one that says “Hey, I’ve fallen in love with those characters. Give me more!”
Hobson resolves this conundrum by separating Emily from Dreadnought time and again, while allowing rivals and circumstance to plant little seeds of doubt in her mind. Is Dreadnought really such a good person? Does she know him as well as she thinks? Was falling in love with him even a good thing? He’s not perfect, as it turns out, and he hasn’t told her the full truth about himself or his past.
The resulting novel has all the danger, all the suspense, and all the weird, wonderful magic of its predecessor. It also has a terrific romantic arc, one that adds depth and polish to the mad scramble of Emily and Dreadnought’s initial courtship. The Hidden Goddess still ends with a beginning of sorts, with that promise of a good life about to begin. But this time the couple riding into its shared future is riding on something more than glowing faith in true love—they have scoured away their secrets, and built the kind of trust and intimacy from which lifelong commitments can spring.
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.