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.