The Native Star
M. K. Hobson
As I’ve said in the past I’m a bit of a sucker for tales of the “weird west.” So it shouldn’t much of a surprise to note that I picked up and listened to the audiobook version of M. K. Hobson’s The Native Star. Set in Reconstruction Era America The Native Star,the first in the series of the same, follows small town witch Emily Edwards. The novel opens with Emily, desperate to take care of her mentor and adoptive father, placing a love charm on a local businessman. This desperate act sends Emily on a path that unites her with titular artifact and attaches her to the mannered and formally trained warlock Dreadnaught Stanton. The novel follows Emily and Dreadnaught as they attempt to understand the mystery of the Native Star.
It should come as no small surprise that a novel set in the 19th century and featuring a strong female protagonist focuses a considerable amount of its time on gender politics. From the stigma of a woman traveling alone, to being unmarried in your mid-twenties, to being a witch in a society of warlocks the novel often focuses on the role of gender in 19th century society. Mostly this takes the form of everyone male assuming they are more competent to decide Emily’s fate than Emily is. This is rather infuriating as a reader and just slightly less infuriating for Emily. The primary vector for much of this ballyhooing regarding the fairer sex is Dreadnaught Stanton. Though couched in the guide of gentility and good-manners Dreadnaught’s decision making in the novel does not often take Emily’s perspective into view.
Dreadnaught isn’t a particularly likeable character (despite the badass name). The romance between Emily and Dreadnaught is telegraphed from the beginning but never felt that real to me and as a result was not all that interesting compared to the rest of the story. In fact one of my favorite parts of the novel is when Emily, disguised as a man, befriends a fellow (female) traveler on the train. There was some genuine humor in Emily’s attempts to play the male role and the break from Dreadnaught’s constant overbearing “I know best” attitude was a welcome change. Thankfully the forthright and outspoken Emily is an entertaining and interesting character in her own right. She is very much the independent frontier woman, used to the hardships of life outside the city, yet still naïve about the world at large.
Hobson gives the feeling that she has created a whole mythology (or borrowed bits of real mythology for her world). The action is focused on the lives and experiences of the characters but gives hints (and sometimes more than hints) that there is more going on beneath the surface of her world. She raises a number of questions over the course of the novel regarding the nature of magic in the world, the type of made-up theorizing that fantasy geeks (well most fantasy geeks) live for. Unfortunately, and it is rare that I say something like this, I felt that the focus of the character distracted me from a rather interesting world. In particular the romance between Dreadnaught and Emily was rather less interesting to me than the intricacies of the world that Hobson created.
I really loved the finale of the novel. It’s only problem is that reveal comes a bit too late. There are some fascinating implications there and it evokes a wonderful weird science vibe but I would have loved to have seen those aspects more than just touched on over the course of the novel. I also would have liked to learn a little more about Emily’s past; something that is hinted at over the course of the novel but a topic the is quickly veered away from whenever we came close to any answers. The Native Star is a consistently entertaining novel despite its flaws. The magic is entertaining and the world is vibrant and it never ceases to engage the imagination; even it when it tries your patience. If you’re looking for an entertaining read with a faint steampunk vibe and well-realized setting than you should definitely give The Native Star a try.