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REVIEW: Native Star by M.K. Hobson

Dear Ms. Hobson,

The first books that were ever read to me-’aside from children’s picture books that is-’were C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, thus establishing a long history of love for the fantasy genre. As a child, my favorite books were those that had any kind of magic, fairy tale or fantastic elements in them. For example, I read ever single one of Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz series, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, you get the idea. However, one of the problems with fantasy, science fiction, or anything like either of those genres, is that they are incredibly dependent on the series. And, as you know, if you are a fantasy reader of any sort, series can really, really suck. They start out with so much potential, you love the characters, things seem to be going so well. But in the end it is like being in the literary equivalent of an abusive relationship. At some point, the series betrays you. And yet, you keep picking up the next book and the next book in the series, hoping against hope, that this time the characters will be like their old selves; that the plot will make sense; that there will be an ending, satisfying and gratifying. But it never is and you are finally forced to give up the series, knowing that it’s never going to change. With instance that this happens, a person becomes more cynical.

Native Star by M.K. HobsonSo I gave up reading fantasy for the most part for this. I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't put myself through that inevitable disappointment of waiting for the sequel and then the sequel (or nineteenth billionth book, as the case often was) breaking my heart.

But every once and awhile, a book comes a long in the fantasy genre that cries out for me to read it. This, Ms. Hobson, was one of those books. I read the interview you did here at Dear Author with Jane and I found the entire premise of your book very intriguing. So I went to the bookstore and did what all readers do at the bookstore . . . I read the first chapter. It hooked me.

Here’s the first sentence:

Five loud, hard, sharp crashes. Someone was knocking-’no, not knocking, rather pounding-’at the door of Mr. Everdene Baugh’s house on Church Street.

The story is about Emily Edwards, a witch living in the small town of Lost Pine, California during the Reconstruction period of the U.S.A. (that's post-Civil War). Things are . . . problematic. The winter was hard, with little fuel, less business and almost no food. She and Pap, her foster-father, aren't getting the kind of jobs they sued to thanks to the infiltration of Baugh's-’the mass-produced spells that are running Emily and Pap out of business. Clearly, something needs to be done, and Emily is going to do it. If things keep progressing the way they are, she and Pap are going to starve to death next winter. So they need an income. They need a home. Emily decides, like generations of women before her, that getting married will solve the problem of penury and she consequently picks the most eligible bachelor in Lost Pine, one Dag Hanson. The book starts just after the night Emily performed her love spell. She knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but she was desperate and she swears to herself that she’ll be a good wife to Dag, even if she doesn’t love him.

Meanwhile, there’s also the problem of Dreadnought Stanton, an insufferable (ha!) warlock whose presence in Lost Pine is . . . curious, to say the least. He wasn’t around much during the winter but before that he was pestering her and Pap with his lectures on the modern application of magic. Emily wishes he would just leave her an Pap alone. Besides, what an educated man like is doing hanging around a small town in the Sierra Nevadas doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I mean, he says he's there to help local witches and warlocks move into modern times, but since that's just Emily and Pap, well, nobody can understand why he stays.

Things do not go as planned. The love spell Emily puts on Dag is too strong. From the get go, it makes him a little crazy. Then, during Dag’s barn raising party, the local, drunken prognosticator makes an ominous prediction; a prediction nobody believes because he calls Emily a bad witch whose been doing bad magic. He also says there’s going to be trouble up the mines, the mines that are worked by zombies. Emily alone knows she's a bad witch, which means that Besim was right about the danger up at the Old China mines. The only other person who believes the old man is Dreadnought Stanton.

It’s at the mines that Emily meets her destiny and encounters the native star of the title. The spell that keeps the zombie miners under control is no longer working-’no, it’s working, it’s just no longer working on the miners. Why? They don’t know, but suddenly, Emily and Stanton find themselves faced with hundreds of undead miners clawing their way out of the mine, ready to attack the town, not to mention the two of them. Through a series of events, they manage to save the town, but Emily walks away with a strange piece of rock embedded in her hand-’a rock that sucks any magic performed near it right into itself.

What follows is a cross-country adventure as Emily and Stanton attempt to solve the problem of the rock, whilst avoiding the various nefarious groups bent on acquiring the stone and, consequently, Emily as well.

For me, this book was a perfect trifecta of plot, character, and language.

On the plot: it was tightly woven, the simple story at the beginning explodes out into something rich and complex without ever losing sight of that original story. Similarly, one of the many pitfalls of fantasy is that of world-building, specifically in the rules that govern magic. The limits and limitations of the characters are never well-defined and it often seems that abilities appear and disappear when it is convenient. You avoid this. There is a system and it is obeyed. As a reader I never felt like I was in WTF territory as far as the rules for magic were concerned. Moreover, you merge history and fantasy together fairly seamlessly, without resorting to info-dumps or pedagogy.

On character: Emily is awesome. She was intelligent, clever, and valiant, but she was neither a kick-ass Mary Sue or TSTL. Her actions, her failures, her flaws, and her perspectives all arose organically out of her character and her context. Similarly, Stanton is an unrepentant snob but again, his actions, his abilities, his flaws and his perspective are all clearly an outcropping of his character and context.   Additionally, we aren't told about these characters, they are revealed to us through the dialogue, their interactions with each other, the events of the book. They grow but remain true to their character.

Finally, you paid attention to language. Your descriptions were vivid and rich. You managed, somehow, to convey that period of time in an American history even at the level of word choice. It felt as if it occurred in a similar world to that of Mark Twain and the Pony Express, while still not feeling contrived. For example:

It was close to noon, and Ogden was flooded with warm spring sunshine. IT was the biggest and nicest station they’d yet stopped at-’an elaborate profusion of peaks and gables and awnings, with a high clock tower rising up from the middle. The paint was so fresh it still reeked of linseed oil. Ogden was a hub of transcontinental rail traffic, and the station teemed with feverish activity. Bags and trunks whizzed by on carts, salesboys hawked snacks and supplies, travelers crowded in a churning mass.

Alas (or huzzah?), this book is the first in a series? a trilogy? I don't know. But clearly, the ending was pointing towards another book (and your blog indicates as much, too). YET, I felt that this was a whole and complete book in and of itself. It did not leave me hanging. The major narrative arc was resolved. I can only express my thanks for this because I think, too many times, fantasy novels rely on the expectation of a series rather than working within a smaller narrative framework.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, romance, steampunk, and historical novels. A

Lazaraspaste

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Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

19 Comments

  1. ka
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 14:04:45

    Another articulate review that tempts me to consider this book!

  2. M.K. Hobson
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 14:34:30

    Out of a sense of decorum, I generally refrain from posting in the comment threads of reviews … but I just couldn’t let your reference to the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books pass unremarked-upon. Those were some of my favorite books growing up! Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle taught me everything I know about karma.

    Did you also read the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books by Maud Hart Lovelace? I loved those immoderately. And of course, the Little House on the Prairie books (to which there are many, many references in THE NATIVE STAR.) ;-)

    Thanks for giving me a smile,
    Mary

  3. Liz
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 15:00:08

    Well, now I’m torn: should I re-read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle first, or head straight for this book? Thanks to this excellent review and the author’s response, I am now really looking forward to the book (which is somewhere in my enormous e-TBR “pile”).

  4. Carolyn
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 16:19:48

    You’ve sold me. :-)

    The cover itself would be worth the price, it’s gorgeous.

  5. SpazP {Pamela}
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 18:10:05

    Hooray! I won a signed copy of this book, and now I can’t wait to read it. Great review!

  6. Tae
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 18:30:33

    generally I’d be the first in line for a fantasy book, and though your review was well written with good arguments – I just can’t seem to make myself interested in the premise

  7. Statch
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 18:39:39

    What a great review! The review got me to put Native Star on my wishlist…but Ms. Hobson’s comment made me go ahead and buy it. Anyone who can write like that in a comment has to be worth reading…

  8. lazaraspaste
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 19:49:18

    I would like to generally apologize for the numerous typos I just spotted in this review. Oh well.

    @MK Hobson–Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle also taught everything I need to know about raising children :)I never read the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books but I did read all the Little House Books over and over and over again. Not as many times as the Anne books, but close.

    Thanks for your decorous behavior.

  9. orannia
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 20:28:07

    The first books that were ever read to me-’aside from children's picture books that is-’were C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia…

    The first books I ever bought myself were CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I still have them, thirty years later. Thank you lazaraspaste – your review really has me intrigued. I’m always on the look-out for good fantasy novels, although I’m so with you WRT series betrayal.

    She was intelligent, clever, and valiant, but she was neither a kick-ass Mary Sue or TSTL.

    YAH! I’m always on the look out for heroines of the non-kick-ass variety *grin*

  10. Janine
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 20:41:29

    I really, really wanted to love this book, but so far (at p.94 of 346), I’m disappointed. In fact I stopped reading it about a month ago and haven’t picked it up again.

    I also bought this book after the interview here at DA (Was it with Jane? I thought i was with Alyson H.), and at first, I thought I was going to adore it. The characters seemed endearing at first glance, and I agree with you about the language (terrific) and the beautifully realized setting. The plot is interesting, too. The events of the prologue and the native star stone are intriguing.

    But at some point, I realized I just wasn’t invested in Emily and Dreadnought’s fate. I don’t really care that much if they live or die.

    And the reason, if I have to articulate one, is that at least at this point, more than a quarter of the way into the story, they haven’t engaged me. I can’t speak for the rest of the story, since I haven’t read it, but so far, it feels like they are all surface. There is no underlying vulnerability or hidden depth to make me truly care about them.

    Also, I hate to say this, but their bickering is feeling repetitive to me. But again, this may just be a factor of not being pulled in by the characters.

    I’m at the San Francisco chapter and if you tell me this is likely to change if I keep reading, I may get back to the book. It seemed like such a great read in the first few pages that part of me hopes the rest of it will be different than the last five or six chapters.

  11. Kaetrin
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 23:30:13

    Ths for the review Lazaraspaste. Now I’m curious – but I have some questions – Is there a romance between Dreadnought and Emily? Is it fantasy with a bit of romance or is it a fantasy/romance novel – ie, how “romantic” is it? Thx! :)

  12. Chris
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 00:38:01

    I clicked on the Kindle link and got:
    “This title is not available for customers from: Australia”

    Sigh.

  13. Angela James
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 07:25:30

    @Janine: I could have written your post, except I did finish it, hoping my feelings would change. Here’s what I said on Goodreads:

    This is one of those books that I give three stars to because it wasn’t a book for me, not because I think it was a terrible book. I know a lot of people loved it, and I can see why. The strength of this book lies, for me, in the worldbuilding, which is quite detailed. I appreciated the difference of the world in this book as well as the developed magic elements. However, I am very much a character reader and the main characters were difficult for me to connect to and empathize with, from the beginning. My feelings didn’t change significantly throughout the book. As a romance, the book felt weak to me, and I think I may have actually liked it better without any romantic elements. But still, the connection to the characters that’s so vital to me as a reader wasn’t there and so I give it 3 stars, with the knowledge that I’ll probably pass on future books, with some regret.

  14. Janine
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 12:12:58

    @Angela James:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Angela. That is good to know. I haven’t connected with the characters yet at this point and the way the book was going when I last read it, I was afraid I wouldn’t.

    My husband and I were actually reading it together (we’ve been taking turns reading out loud to each other in the evenings), and he felt the same way. It was a mutual decision to stop reading, because neither of us connected with the characters.

    I agree with you that the world-building was superb, but I too am a reader who absolutely has to connect with the characters in order to enjoy the story. Thanks again for your feedback; unless I hear from someone who took a long time to connect with the characters but did eventually, I probably won’t pick this one back up.

  15. lazaraspaste
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 12:37:35

    Here’s what I would say in answer to all of these questions:

    This is a fantasy with romantic elements. There is a romance between Dreadnought and Emily. However, the romance is not the central focus of the plot.

    That said, the character development is sloooow. By which I mean, in romance generally characters are known quantities. We know who they are (or think we do) almost immediately, so they either remain cliches throughout the book (rake, spinster, diamond of the first water, Duke, werewolf etc.) or their character development is a result of them breaking out of those cliches. When you read romance, you learn to read the book for instant signs of character.

    Fantasy is a bit different. Characters develop at a different rate because the central plot is not a relationship but some other happening. Thus readers of romance should be warned: this book develops the characters and the romance in a completely different manner than what we are used to. I think whenever you switch between genres or styles or time periods or languages there is about 100 or so pages in which you have to learn to read the book by its own terms.

    That said I can see where Angela is coming from and Janine. However, I obviously disagree. I think it comes down to a matter of preference about character and character development.

  16. Janine Ballard
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 14:35:12

    @lazaraspaste: I’m packing for a trip so I don’t have time to comment further except to say thank you for your response.

  17. Estelle
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 14:54:03

    What a great review! The Native Star is one of my best reads so far this year and you’ve said very eloquently all that I would have wanted to say about it.

    The book reminds me a bit of the Harry Potter or the Discworld series when it comes to worldbuilding: very detailed and it feels very real although we’re talking about a completely alternate world with magic in it. It’s a real gift to be able to write such a world and not many authors have it.

    My only regret is that the next book seems so faraway!

  18. Merrian
    Oct 15, 2010 @ 20:40:43

    I recently read a Thomas Harlan book I had been waiting years for. The book is the third (so far) in a series of alien contact by Terrans who come from a world where the Aztecs and the Samurai won. I love the cultures and the worlds created by the author along with the sense of impending doom based in Aztec mythology. The series is called ‘In the Time of the Sixth Sun' and the books are ‘Wasteland of Flint' which is an amazing alien contact story, then ‘House of Reeds' – pretty much straight military space opera and bad things happening to the people we are cheering for and now ‘Land of the Dead' which is all about choices.

    Since I read mainly PNR or UF or straight romance stories these days, I was almost half way through the book when I realised that I wasn’t reading it ‘right’ for the genre. I seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop, for every new male to be the heroine’s love interest, for the story to revolve around the lead female character who is alpha and takes the actions that drive the story but isn’t a ‘heroine’ and for the story, so to speak – to take off from there. I actually had to put the book down, think about this and remember why I have followed this series in the first place so I could come back to it with a different mindset. This experience made me realise how much I read ‘for' something that comes from the story. So I can really understand the comments from Janine and Angela. If that ‘something' however it defines its self for us isn't there then the story isn't ‘ours' to read.

  19. Dawn
    Oct 18, 2010 @ 11:10:13

    Thanks for the review. I found a sample for this when I was organizing my Kindle content (hurrah for long car trips!) and wondered why I had downloaded something about a witch (not my usual cuppa).

    Thanks for refreshing my memory. Now I wish had spent part of the car trip reading the sample

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