The Native Star, M. K. Hobson’s debut novel, has been nominated for the Nebula Award this year. This historical fantasy, set in an alternate America in the year 1876, had piqued my curiosity so when The Book Smugglers announced a Nebula Readathon I knew it was time to read it. I am so glad I did – I was hoping to like it, but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. A sequel, The Hidden Goddess, is scheduled for release on April 26, and it’s still not soon enough because as soon as I finished The Native Star that was the only book I really wanted to read next.
Making a living is becoming tougher for Emily Edwards, a young witch living in Lost Pine, California, with her adoptive father. She’s had to take over her father’s work as a magic user, and there have been so many medical bills for her father that they’re barely managing to feed themselves. To make matters worse, many of the townspeople have begun ordering their magic from a corporation, Baugh’s Patent Magicks, leaving less opportunity for Emily to earn money for the two of them. Out of desperation, Emily casts a love spell on Dag Hansen, the most successful man in town, so he will marry her and provide for her and her father.
However, Emily’s plans go awry. The night of the dance when Emily suspects Dag will propose to her, an old man is asked to use magic to reveal some truths they don’t know about. His first revelation is that Emily has performed some bad magic, but after Dag tells him to not to speak badly of Emily, he reveals that the zombie miners at Old China have gone out of control. Everyone believes this to be ludicrous, but Emily is concerned since at least part of his prophecy was indeed accurate. She sneaks away from the dance to go check it out for herself, only to be followed by Dreadnought Stanton, a traveling warlock whom Emily despises as an arrogant, pompous know-it-all. Of course, Mr. Stanton cannot let Emily face a horde of zombies by herself, particularly since he is more knowledgeable about such matters than she is.
The two arrive at the mine to find out what the old man said is indeed true. The zombies found a blue stone and for some reason it caused them to become enraged. Emily and Mr. Stanton manage to escape, but once they’re out of danger, Emily realizes this blue stone has become embedded in her hand – and neither she nor the extraordinarily scholarly Mr. Stanton know why or how to remove it. Mr. Stanton promises to do some research, and the next morning he suggests Emily go to the university for magical studies in San Francisco to get help. The decision becomes easier for Emily when he offers enough money in exchange for her father to manage without her, particularly since the stone prevents Emily from performing magic herself. Also, she really wants to be able to reverse the love spell she cast on Dag. After Dag heard Emily was seen with Stanton after she disappeared from the dance, he went into a frenzy destroying his buildings because they reminded him of Emily and the life he wanted with her. So Emily agrees to spend one or two weeks going to San Francisco with Mr. Stanton, but neither of them are prepared for just how long the journey will be – or just how dangerous, as many will stop at nothing to try to retrieve this mysterious stone from Emily’s hand.
The Native Star is an immensely fun book containing adventure, an intriguing alternate history/western setting with lots of magic, and a little bit of romance. From the description, I really didn’t expect to be enamored of it, and I probably never would have picked it up if I hadn’t heard it was good from other reviewers. However, it hooked me almost immediately, particularly because it didn’t take long at all for me to love the two main characters and become invested in seeing them succeed against all the dangers that were thrown their way. They were both flawed, but they also remained likable.
In spite of her practice of bad magic by forcing a man to love her, Emily is a sympathetic character. It’s not a spell she casts lightly, and it’s quite clear that she feels that it is a last resort. In addition to the fact that her conscience bothers her, she doesn’t even love Dag nor does she particularly want to marry him – but she does worry about what will happen to her father if their financial situation does not improve quickly. Throughout the course of the novel, it’s shown that this is in keeping with Emily’s character. She’s a woman of action and not the type to sit back if she has a method at her disposal she can use, no matter how risky or unladylike it may be. Yet she doesn’t seem foolhardy, just like someone who is doing the best she can – and she’s also capable of admitting she was wrong and trying to set things right, as she does when she realizes just how miserable she’s made poor Dag.
Emily also has her prejudices, which becomes clear when she and Stanton encounter some Native Americans. Her thoughts about these people are not very kind, nor are some of the comments she makes to Stanton such as when their Holy Woman is scrutinizing her:
“Sizing me up for the cook pot, no doubt,” Emily muttered. [pp. 84]
While her attitude is harsh, I also got the impression at the time that it was largely due to naivete and Emily’s opinion could very well change. This was the first time she’d really been away from Lost Pine, so she’s been sheltered her whole life and probably only knows what she’s read in some of the magazines or heard from some of the townspeople. By the end, she seems more accepting, and it would be more difficult to like her if she didn’t considering the role the Native American Holy Woman plays.
On the subject of prejudice, Emily also holds quite a bit of disdain for Stanton and has ever since the first time she saw him in their town. Her view of him has never changed, as she sees him as far too lofty and prideful for his own good:
Emily let out a sigh and prepared to be annoyed. For when it came to being annoying, Dreadnought Stanton never disappointed.
He was a Warlock, and the manner in which he typically delivered this left the distinct impression that the word must be spelled in strictly capital letters. He was a Warlock, a member of a lofty brotherhood whose kind ran factories, advised ancient monarchs, and were appointed to cabinet posts in Washington, D.C.; doers of great deeds who turned the tides of war and vanquished monsters; superior men who shored up the underpinnings of reality and other extremely splendid and eye-opening things.
Dreadnought Stanton was a Warlock, and during his tenure in Lost Pine, he never seemed to tire of reminding people of that fact. [pp. 19]
It’s also quite clear that Emily is not entirely unjustified in her annoyance at his presence as he does indeed seem to be rather pompous, telling her he insists on accompanying her to check out the potential zombie issue because “I can’t let a female with such dangerously antique notions of magic–not to mention such a questionable code of ethics–face a pack of zombie miners alone” (pp. 29). Yet he also proves to be brave and reliable, and Emily eventually comes to respect him as she gets to know him better even if he does remain a sort of walking encyclopedia magica.
As much as I loved the characters and their conversations, there’s far more to recommend than just the two main protagonists. The world is also very well-drawn and through the course of Emily and Stanton’s travels a lot is learned about it and different views on magic. There are three main schools of magic: credomancy, animancy, and sangrimancy. Credomancy involves influence through manipulating beliefs, animancy is earth magic/herbalism, and sangrimancy is a dark, blood magic. There’s a wide variety of views on practicing magic, and some would persecute anyone who does. It also appears there is much more to magic, depending on which area of the world one is from, but there are only some brief glimpses of this.
There’s also lots of adventure, betrayals and hardships along the way. I particularly enjoyed that it was actually a perilous journey and Hobson didn’t end it with everyone coming away unscathed (although I did also think there was less horror at what happened than I would have expected, but I guess there were some bigger preoccupations that could have put this in perspective).
The conclusion wrapped up the main part of this novel nicely, but it also leaves one with a lot of questions for the next novel since it hints that something much bigger is happening. A little more is revealed in this final section about what went on behind the scenes, but it also leaves open more possibilities and sets up a sequel.
Simply put, I absolutely loved The Native Star and cannot wait to read the The Hidden Goddess. It had me glued to the pages, desperately wanting to know what happened next, and completely invested in the two main characters and their mission. At the same time, it introduced a fascinating alternate world in the 1800’s and left some tantalizing pieces about both the bigger picture and the two main characters’ pasts. It’s very different from what I’d expect to see nominated for the Nebula, but it was both enchanting and memorable enough that it’s easy to see why it was nominated.
My Rating: 9/10 (I dithered a bit between an 8 and a 9, but in the end, this one has really stuck with me so I’m going with a 9.)
Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.