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.
So 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