August 31, 2012 by Heidi
Title: The Native Star [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: M.K. Hobson [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: First in the Veneficas Americana series.
Genre: Historical, Fantasy, Gaslamp*
Published: August 16th, 2011 by Audible Frontiers (First published August 31st, 2010 by Spectra)
Format: Audiobook; 13 hrs, 7 min
In the tradition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, this brilliant first novel fuses history, fantasy, and romance. Prepare to be enchanted by M. K. Hobson’s captivating take on the Wild, Wild West.
The year is 1876. In the small Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine, the town witch, Emily Edwards, is being run out of business by an influx of mail-order patent magics. Attempting to solve her problem with a love spell, Emily only makes things worse. But before she can undo the damage, an enchanted artifact falls into her possession—and suddenly Emily must flee for her life, pursued by evil warlocks who want the object for themselves.
Dreadnought Stanton, a warlock from New York City whose personality is as pompous and abrasive as his name, has been exiled to Lost Pine for mysterious reasons. Now he finds himself involuntarily allied with Emily in a race against time—and across the United States by horse, train, and biomechanical flying machine—in quest of the great Professor Mirabilis, who alone can unlock the secret of the coveted artifact. But along the way, Emily and Stanton will be forced to contend with the most powerful and unpredictable magic of all—the magic of the human heart.
You know that expression “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”? Yeah…whoever first said it was obviously trying to make themselves feel better about that awesome road trip they had on the way to stay with their boring Aunt Mildred for the summer. Because honestly, when it comes to reading, I like both the destination and the journey to rock my socks off. I want the payoff, and I can’t help but feeling that while I enjoyed the lead up in M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star very much, I was left a little underwhelmed at the climax and groaning at the ominous foreshadowing toward the sequel.
The Native Star was recommended to me by no less than three bookish friends. When I finished reading other American historical fantasy novels earlier this year like Dust Girl and Theiftaker and expressed further interest in this niche of Historical Fantasy, Catie, Flannery (The Readventurer) and Kristen (Fantasy Cafe) all mentioned The Native Star as right up my alley. And it was! It filled that slot perfectly. It was the same feel, but more adult than Dust Girl and more engaging than Theiftaker.
*Now if you’ll excuse me while I go all Hermione on ya’all:
Let’s have a quick discussion about Gaslamp fantasy, because it’s pretty clear to me by the number of people who label Gaslamp as Steampunk that there is the same departure here as there is with Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic. Because no, they are not the same thing. In fact, I’d say 80% of the books labeled as Steampunk are not, in fact, Steampunk. A lot of these aren’t even Gaslamp, people just get genre happy and go wild when they see cogs and bussels.
What is Gaslamp and how does it differ from Steampunk?
Gaslamp is a subgenre of Historical Fiction and Fantasy, whereas Steampunk tends to be heavier on sci-fi aspects and steam power. Both genres are generally placed in the same historical period, that of the Victorian or Wild West era, but there are exceptions (notably, there are many futuristic Steampunk novels). Gaslamp draws more heavily from Gothic literature, with romantic and horror themes. They are very similar, but I think of it this way: Gaslamp is like a branch of Steampunk the same way that Dystopians are a branch of Post-Apocalyptic/Futuristic novels. I tend to say if it’s more Sci-Fi, it’s Steampunk, and if it’s more fantasy, it’s Gaslamp.
Some examples of Gaslamp lit include:
- Jonothan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
- Leanna Renee Hieber’s Strangely Beautiful and Magic Most Foul series (I’ve reviewed Darker Still)
- The Girl Genius series by Kaja & Phil Foglio (they actually coined the term ‘Gaslamp’)
- Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series
- This book I’m reviewing right here! The Veneficas Americana series.
Yeah, this term is a bit pretentious, you don’t really need to use it, and Gaslamp and Steampunk are very similar, but I had to get on the soap box just this once. Just say “historical fantasy’” and we’re all good, but for the love of reason I wish marketers (yeah, I blame them and not the readers) would stop referring to everything as Steampunk!
Okay back to the Eastern Boys and Western Girls circa 1876:
The moment I realized that The Native Star was opening with a prologue that involved a warehouse that was BIGGER ON THE INSIDE I was sold. It took off fast right out the gate, and didn’t really let up, making the whole story feel like a bit of a whirlwind, and leaving me constantly surprised that I was only 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 of the way through. They’d already gone through so much!
Emily Edwards is a backwater witch looking only to make a living and keep her adopted father in good health when money is tight. As such, she sees the best prospect as marriage, and Dag the Lumberman as someone who will make a decent husband. She works a love spell on him which backfires pretty quickly when a premonition leads to her running off to check on the zombies in the mine with warlock Dreadnought Stanton in tow. It’s 1876, women just don’t do that sort of thing–running off with another man–even if it is in the backwoods of the Sierra Nevada mountains with the intent on insuring that a horde of zombies aren’t out of control and about to let loose on the town.
Turns out, the zombies are all up in a tizzy about a particular stone, the Native Star, a powerful magical artifact that is about to lodge itself into Emily’s palm. With the need to figure out just what this stone does (and hopefully remove it from her hand…she’d kind of like that back), Emily likes to think she quits town gracefully to head to San Francisco, when in reality her and Dreadnought are practically run out due to the general disgust at their scandalous behavior. Thus commences a non-stop, fast paced, high energy story of magic, power, and romance.
Suehyla El-Attar’s narration of M.K. Hobson’s The Native Star was good, but not great. She was the perfect voice for Emily, and in fact did great voicing the bulk of characters, unfortunately, her voicing of Dreadnought was near insufferable. I realize Dreadnought is the pretentious insufferable man with whom we’re supposed to be equal parts annoyed and enthralled, but the voicing of him just left me with the annoyed bit, which is a shame, because let’s admit it–Dreadnought’s a hot name. As such, I didn’t really feel the romance of this story at all. I’m not sure if there just wasn’t as much romance in the plot as the blurb would have you believe, or if it just didn’t seep through on the audio due to the failure to make Dreadnought the man you’d want to listen to. Additionally, much of the action and world building could be very complex at times. I appreciated that it was well crafted and thought out, but it was admittedly hard to follow at times via audio, and may have been easier to consume in writing. Either that, or this plot was really as convoluted as it seemed what with all of the creatures, mythologies, and explanations of just what was going on with Emily’s hand. I honestly wasn’t sure if I wasn’t quite getting everything because of the audio (I’m inevitably sidetracked while listening), or because of the writing.
I did love the magical structure created by Hobson, a world where three major schools of magic exist, essentially blood magic, (illegal unless you work for the government), spirit magic (performed largely by women who are given little to no respect in the magical community), and belief magic. The final type being the most fascinating and perfect to me. I have always loved the idea that belief imbues power, and in Hobson’s world we see this working more clearly than in any work I have encountered before. If someone believes with 100% certainty that you cannot do something, you will not be able to do it, but, believe in them and you give them the power to do anything. I love this because this is basically how witchcraft works in places like the Caribbean today–the power of belief is very real. If you are absolutely certain that you have been cursed to bad health, your health will deteriorate. If you don’t believe in such things, no harm will come to you. That is precisely the driving force behind Credomancy, and it made me fall in love with Hobson’s world. I love when even strong magic users have very practical limits based on a set of rules, and here it was well done.
The Native Star tells of the exciting and perilous journey from one coast to the other at a time when cross country travel was anything but easy (or comfortable). It is also a time when progress was warring heavily with tradition, which is clearly evidenced in the magical community and outside reactions. I loved that Emily was a country girl who cared little for propriety or fancy things, and would like nothing more than to stay at home with her adopted father. She’s convinced herself that a comfortable life is good enough, but as the story unfolds before her it becomes evident that this is a woman destined for adventure.
As stated at the beginning, I did find the climax…anti-climatic. Sure, it was exciting, but at the same time I feel like we’d created this snowball at the beginning, set it down the mountain to get bigger and bigger, and instead of neatly smashing a cabin, it just bumped into a tree or two and stopped near a precipice, never quite going over. The final scene of the book presented a big exposition between the remaining villains wherein plans are laid for the next book, and it was all just a bit too mustache twirly for me.
As a result, my satisfaction level went down quite a bit at the end. I suppose the style was fitting for the Gothic atmosphere, but it didn’t work for me, and as such I’m uncertain about my readiness to continue on with Emily and Dreadnought’s story. Still–I totally recommend this book for those who enjoy fantasy set in the historic United States–it’s one of the most fun examples I’ve yet encountered.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: Like I said, I found the ending really drove this one down for me, but the world was still awesome. I think I’m more likely to read the forthcoming, The Warlock’s Curse than the second in the series, The Hidden Goddess, because it appears to be a companion novel set in the same world with new characters.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in Historical Fantasy, particularly of the Gaslamp genre ala Jonothan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Leanna Renee Hieber’s Strangely Beautiful and Magic Most Foul series. Listen to the audio at your own risk, or if you don’t have particular interest in your romantic dudes being at all sexy.
Get a second opinion:
Janicu’s Book Blog – “I enjoyed the alternative history and how magic fit into the Victorian mindset where Progress and Tradition often butted heads.”
The Allure of Books -“I fell in love with the characters and their world”
The Booksmugglers – “Absolutely recommended”