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Smugglivus 2010 Book Review: The Native Star by M.K. Hobson

Title: The Native Star

Author: M.K. Hobson

Genre: Fantasy, Western, Alternate History, (Old) Weird

Publisher: Spectra
Publication Date: August 2010
Paperback: 400 pages

In the tradition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, this brilliant first novel fuses history, fantasy, and romance. Prepare to be enchanted by M. K. Hobson’s captivating take on the Wild, Wild West.

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

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned series

How did I get this book: Bought (ebook)

Why did I read this book: I had seen a few reviews for The Native Star floating around the interwebs, but not really that much coverage – and I gotta say, the mix of western, an iota of steampunk, magic and romance was pretty appealing. (I had a hard time getting into Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, so I was eager to give another book in the same sort of tradition a shot).

Review:

It’s a hard world for a backwater witch like Emily Edwards. With the increasing popularity of Baugh’s Patent Magicks (mass produced, mail-order prepackaged charms), Emily’s homemade poultices and droughts are being run out of business. And, with her Pap’s ailing health and Emily herself an old maid at just over 25 years old, her prospects for the future are not looking too hot. So, rather than accept looming destitution, starvation and defeat, Emily takes matters into her own hands and decides to craft a love spell for Dag Hansen, an honest, good fellow and the most prosperous lumberman in Lost Pine. Unfortunately for Emily (and Dag), she crafted her love charm a little bit too strongly, and Dag instantly becomes besotted – to the point of jealous and possessive rage – with Emily. But a love enchantment gone awry is not the largest of Emily’s problems, as the local magicked reanimated zombies working the mines in the town suddenly start to malfunction and attack their human overseers. Rushing to the scene and with the aid of the infuriating, snobbish warlock Dreadnought Stanton, Emily is able to incapacitate the faulty zombies, but also inadvertently touches a strange gemstone that becomes solidly and inoperably lodged in her hand. The stone, as Stanton and Emily soon discover, is known as “The Native Star” – an incredibly powerful and rare elemental mineral that absorbs magic (explaining the zombies’ malfunction). Determined that this is an incredibly unique research opportunity, Stanton makes Emily an offer to travel with him to San Francisco to submit herself to documentation and scholarly examination by professors at the Mirabilis Institute, for a tidy amount of money. Embarrassed and ashamed for her witching of Dag and determined to get the meddlesome rock out of her hand so that she can reverse the spell immediately, Emily agrees and the duo set out from Lost Pine. What they find on their journey, however, is that the Native Star is a much rarer and powerful stone than they had imagined – and suddenly everyone wants Emily. On the run from brutal sangrimancers, religious zealots, lobbying politicians, and power-hungry warlocks, Emily and Stanton must use their skills to discover the truth of the stone, and figure out a way to safely harness its power, with the fate of the world itself at stake.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately (not that the books I’ve been reading have been bad, necessarily, just slightly underwhelming), and The Native Star completely took me by surprise. Consider it a ground-rule double – a totally solid play that has the ability to rejuvenate an anemic lineup (please excuse the baseball analogies; this review was written on a plane with the incredible cheesiness that is Charlie St. Cloud playing in the background. Seriously, who greenlights these movies?! I digress). First, let’s talk world-building: set in an alternate version of post-Civil War America, complete with the commonplaceness of magic and a steampunkish aesthetic, The Native Star is a truly winsome fantasy western (with a dash of romance). The magical conceit in this novel from Ms. Hobson is wonderfully detailed, involving three classes of magic, each with their own intriguing backgrounds and connotations. Animancers, like Emily, are workers of live creatures and spirit; Credomancers, like Stanton, use the force of belief to create magic (kinda like vampires and crosses and all that jazz); and Sangrimancers, the baddest baddies of them all, use human blood (the more painfully tortured the better) to work their powerful, terrible magic. What’s even more awesome is that Ms. Hobson explores this magical world largely from the perspective of an uneducated and untrained witch, whom, by all accounts, is a backwater hussy to respectable magical society. There’s also an awesome contrast of Native American magic and understanding of the world and the origins of magic. Together, these different viewpoints and interpretations of magic in The Native Star make for a really comprehensive worldview. Although the blurb and general line for the book includes a sort-of-steampunkish flavor, at its heart, this is actually much more of a good old fashioned western (well…with magic); no automatons, random dirigibles, or utterly superfluous steam-powered machines here (ugh, thank GOD because for reals that ish is getting really, really annoying). The Native Star is an adventure story, a fugitive story, smeared with blood and dirt, with town mobs and conniving power-players and sociopathic magicians and a badass Miwok Indian wisewoman that lives in a magic acorn (yes, you just read that correctly). Yes! Love! All of these things!

Of course, the characters of The Native Star play a vital role in the success of the book – and although the romance is predictable and the characters somewhat archetypal (talented, snobbish but secretly tortured by his dark past warlock falls in love with the impulsive, straight-shooting witch with a heart of gold), I truly loved both Emily and Stanton. Besides protagonist Emily’s good, typical heroine qualities (strong moral compass, brave, preoccupied with the well-being of those she loves, honest to the point of naivete, etc), she also has her own very serious flaws. For one thing, she has totally resorted to selfishness by putting a love spell on Dag not because she loves the sturdy lumberman, but for the crass end-game of marrying him for money and security for her father. For another, in her first encounter with Miwok on the long, dusty trail to San Francisco, Emily is shockingly biased and unkind in her thoughts – which is in keeping with her character, but a risk that most authors don’t take with protagonists. And while Stanton too has his admirable hero qualities, he also is a stuck up, subtly sexist, elitist prick. And yet, both of these characters grow and evolve over the course of the novel in a believable and reconcilable way. There is a bevy of secondary characters, too, with their own well-drawn motivations and ticks, from the cruel sangrimancer Caul to the chatterboxish Rose Hibble. Really, really good stuff.

While I loved the world, the story and the characters, if I had one complaint with The Native Star, it lies with the writing. Although Ms. Hobson’s prose is certainly competent, the writing is simplistic to the point of blandness (especially at the beginning of the book, where the very basic, almost-callow style almost put me off from continuing with the book); a shame considering the strength of the story and characters. I’m excited for the next installment, however, and have the utmost faith that Ms. Hobson’s writing will only get stronger with time. I cannot wait to return to Emily and Stanton’s world very, very soon. Absolutely recommended, and a contender for one of my favorite, notable reads of the year.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Lost Pine, California
Wednesday, April 23, 1876

When the sun’s first rays touched the tops of the pines in the creek hollow, Emily Edwards shivered as if thin pink and gold fingers were creeping stealthily up her spine.

She hid for a moment under her quilt, chewing on her lip. The instructions in Pap’s grimoire said the words had to be spoken at first light. No use dawdling over it.

Snatching the little blue and red calico spell bag from the pine table beside her bed, she squeezed her eyes shut and whispered:

My decision is firm,
My will is strong
Let this spell bind him
All his life long.

It was done. The Ashes of Amour were finished.

Emily threw off her covers, sending a pair of raggedy cats into grumpy flight. The chill morning air had a crisp, pitchy smell that mingled with the fragrance of the dried flowers and herbs that hung from the rafters. She tucked the little bag of ashes into a pouch she wore around her neck then dressed quickly, gray wool over scratchy underwear, thick knitted socks over icy toes. Then it was time to face the not-inconsiderable task of brushing and braiding her hair.

Emily’s chestnut-colored hair was thick and shiny as silk floss—an extraordinary female endowment. But like most female endowments, it was generally more trouble than it was worth. In particular, it possessed a prodigious ability to tangle—a perverse genius that could be thwarted only by keeping it tightly braided at all times.

But the grimoire had indicated that the Witch must wear nothing knotted or tied or sewn or fastened while working the spell. That meant unbraided and naked. At midnight. In April. In the Sierra Nevada mountains.

She had built a small fire, over which she’d burned the ingredients in a small brass cauldron, but the spell’s directions hadn’t allowed her to linger by it; she had to complete an intricate series of steps and turns and rhymes around the fire as the ingredients crumbled to a potent ash guaranteed to compel the eternal love of anyone who touched it. By the time she’d gotten back to the cabin, she’d been so cold that all she could do was dive under her quilt and hope that some tonsorial miracle would greet her on the morrow.

Sighing her regret that no such miracle had occurred, she picked up her boxwood comb and began picking the snarls out from the ends.

This was not a good start to what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life.

You can read the full chapter, along with the prologue and an audio sample of chapter 2 HERE.

Additional Thoughts: The sequel has a cover and is available for preorder!

Being engaged to a socially-prominent warlock in 19th century New York can be daunting—especially if you’re a witch from a small town in California who’s never sat at a dinner table with more than one fork.

A month has passed since the adventures that brought Emily Edwards from Lost Pine to New York City, but navigating New York magical society is as taxing and treacherous as anything she’s faced so far. Emily’s future mother-in-law is a sociopathic socialite who is not at all pleased with her only son’s choice of a bride. Dreadnought Stanton—Emily’s fiance—has a dark past which has by no means given up all its secrets. And Emily’s own past may hold answers that a shadowy group of Russian scientists will give anything to possess.

Emily will have to brave all these challenges—not to mention an ancient sect of Aztec blood-sorcerers bent on plunging the world into apocalypse—if she and Dreadnought are to have any hope of living happily ever after.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Mr. Monster by Dan Wells

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