The Native Star by M. K. Hobson
The Native Star
I never really thought about it much, but not many fantasy novels are based in the 1800s. Modern times are popular, as are the Renaissance and Arthurian periods, but the heyday of the American west has been mostly glossed over. But The Native Star fills in that gap with an intriguing tale of magic and mystery that spans our growing nation.
Emily Edwards, the witch of Lost Pine, is content to work her small magics and take care of her father. But the advent of “patent magics” pushes Emily to try a forbidden love spell, and the results are disastrous. As she ponders how to undo the damage, she’s irrevocably bound to an enchanted stone and must turn all her energies to figuring out how to break the connection.
She reluctantly accepts the help of Dreadnought Stanton, a New York City warlock who’s been living in Lost Pine for a short while. Dreadnought believes that his mentor, Professor Mirabilis, can help Emily win free of the bond, but she must travel to New York to consult with him. Thus begins a cross country odyssey, during which Emily finds that her feelings for Dreadnought are changing in most unusual ways.
This novel was a Nebula contender, and it’s easy to see why. The author has created a rich and vibrant landscape, populated by a very unique brand of magic. Readers won’t get all the details right out the gate, but patient readers will be rewarded with lots of information that pertains to this alternate America’s magic system. I do have to say that the explanation reminds me a little bit of “the Force” from Star Wars, but it’s not a derivative of that movie. Rather, it takes the concept of an underlying power and weaves it into something new.
There were some details related to magic that I wish were explored a bit more. For example, early in the novel the author introduces us to the zombies, people who have died and been reanimated for the purpose of working dangerous jobs (such as mining). They mention a “corpse switch” that controls them, but other than mentioning that the zombies can work where normal workers couldn’t, the concept of these zombies remains mostly unexplored. I am hoping to see more in future novels.
As usual, I was thrilled to find a novel that takes place in my home turf. The early chapters take place in Northern California, a location that teemed with action and change during the Gold Rush and the years just after. My personal wish is that the author had kept the characters there longer and played with the setting some more, but it’s certainly not a flaw that the novel moves on to the Eastern states.
In fact, the novel moving cross country allows the author to play gently with the idea of steampunk. The characters utilize the train, of course, but they also come into contact with other kinds of machines that are nothing like what we are familiar with. For once, we get a novel that isn’t technically steampunk, but which contains steampunk accents, that doesn’t feel forced. Instead, the machines and devices add to the atmosphere of this alternate America.
Although I admittedly didn’t connect as much to Dreadnought (possibly because he was portrayed as playing things much closer to the chest), I really enjoyed getting to know Emily. Most everyone can relate to feeling like a “fish out of water” (such as when changing schools or jobs), so Emily’s trials are easy to sympathize with.
And Emily and Dreadnought are as much a product of the time period as the machines. There are some older attitudes towards the roles of men and women that dictate—to a certain degree—their actions. But the way that people in general act tends to add to the background and the setting. Since this time period isn’t a common one for fantasy novels, everything that aids in setting the stage is welcome.
Immersive and unique, The Native Star sets a new standard for alternate history in fantasy. Hobson’s vision of a magical America in the 1800s contains the perfect mix of setting and action to bring readers into the story. Its Nebula nomination was well earned.
Also by this author: The Hidden Goddess
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on June 6, 2011.