Review of (and plug for) Mary Hobson's NATIVE STAR

Let me tell you about my friend Mary Hobson.

You might know her as M. K. Hobson, and maybe you’ve read her blog, or maybe you’ve read or heard her many fine stories, such as “Hotel Astarte” (and if you haven’t, go listen).

But the special thing about today is, today you can read her debut novel, NATIVE STAR.

NATIVE STAR tells the tale of a backwoods witch named Emily who gets into trouble when she goes off to fight some zombies and accidentally gets a chunk of the living spirit of Mother Earth stuck in her hand. She and an obnoxious warlock transplanted from New York City, a lean gentleman who labors under the very substantial name of Dreadnought Stanton, must travel to find Professor Mirabilis, leader of the credomancers, so that he can rescue Emily and her hand. Along the way, they encounter troubles aplenty, including conniving warlocks, wild magic, and a giant raccoon.

Let’s talk about the good points. The novel is infused by Mary Hobson’s humor and vivacity, which is a particular delight. Mary can light up any bar or party at a hotel convention and her voice is just as charismatic here. It shows up in some extremely charming dialogue between Emily and Stanton, as well as in the humorous and fanciful choices of imagery–including the aforementioned giant raccoon, and the lace-clad bounty hunter who pursues our hero and heroine. There’s a sense of whimsy and playfulness in the increasingly tangled events that prevent Emily and Stanton from reaching New York.

Hobson is excellent with historical details. She’s also masterful with side characters, from the pleasantly daft Ebeneezer Hembry, to the large-boned grand dame of the alternate history’s women’s movement. Although Emily was quite charming, the side characters almost take over this story: poor Rose with her dreadful novels, the gambling witch in San Francisco, whatever outcast from the world of fashion was the original owner of Emily’s plaid suit.

As the Greenman review by Camille Alexa notes, the book is fast-paced, with an unusual combination of steampunk, romance, historical, and fantasy elements. It reminded me of Gail Carriger’s SOULLESS, and particularly of Cherie Priest’s BONESHAKER—especially when it invoked the same combination of mines and zombies.

Like Cherie Priest’s novel, I found this one entertaining, but ultimately not quite fulfilling. I can point to specific critiques: What was gained by starting the novel with a prologue that could have been sloughed to no detriment that I can see? Can even gloves explain why no one ever inconveniently spots that Emily’s hand has a rock in it? Was it necessary for the magic-as-oil metaphor to be quite so heavy-handed?* And I’m rather tired of romance plotlines that pit the initial nice guy against the initial jerk, especially when it means I know who the heroine is going to end up by the end of her first fuming inner monologue.

But ultimately, I think my problem was one of scope. M. K. Hobson’s short story “Hotel Astarte” (linked above) covers some of the same territory as this piece: it poses a world in which America’s destiny is manifested by magic: warlocks who rule Wall Street with incantations, the march of industrialism, an archetypal King and Queen of the Midwest. Ironically, when I first saw a draft of “Hotel Astarte,” I suggested that Mary should trim back the prose—but here, in a leaner, trimmer version of that world, the magic and mystery and epic scope have disappeared. There was a breathtaking strangeness to the world of Hotel Astarte, carefully layered into the tiny material details, the familiarity of bunting made strange by the import it was given by the epic events and formal language.

NATIVE STAR doesn’t have that. It’s our world, slightly shifted. There are reasons for that, I think. I don’t think the heavy, ritualistic aura of “Hotel Astarte” would have survived the transition to a fast-paced novel. NATIVE STAR is an adventure with particularized characters, whereas “Hotel Astarte” is an epic with archetypes.

But for me, “Hotel Astarte” also captured something I hadn’t seen before, which is why I eventually bought it for PodCastle. It was a fictional flavor I had to adjust to, but it also made me think about history in a new way.

NATIVE STAR is something I’ve seen before. It’s has shades of BONESHAKER, SOULLESS, even JULIAN COMSTOCK**. It’s a grand, cross-country adventure. The stone in Emily’s hand often seems like a MacGuffin—once circumstances got dire enough, I wanted her to just cut the damn thing out. Better mutilation than death. Her excuse—that she doesn’t want to lose her writing ability—was immediately undercut; even her Pap admits she’d get used to off-hand writing. Sometimes Emily and Stanton encountered side-plots that had no effect on the plot as a whole, except to keep them from reaching New York. It was clear that I had to take the book as a journey, that I had to stop thinking about new ways of looking at fiction, or other ways of solving the plot problems, or whatever other distractions I’d invented—this book wanted me to forget all that and just travel with Emily and Stanton.

And it was fun traveling with Emily and Stanton. It was fun to experience their adventures. It was fun to see what new, fanciful pitfalls Hobson had laid in their path. It was fun to see the colorful side characters. It was fun to see the splash and sparkle of magic. It was fun to run away from a giant frickin’ raccoon.

NATIVE STAR is a fun book. It’s not the book I hoped for when I heard that M. K. Hobson was working on a text in the vein of “Hotel Astarte;” it’s not a book that kicks my ass and takes my name, the way Mary’s work sometimes can. But taken on its own terms—as a grand, sometimes comic, adventure—it’s a fun ride. And one you can take today, by visiting Amazon or another fine bookseller.

*Though I liked that the magic was alive, which reminded me of Sarah Prineas’ Magic Thief series

**I gave relatively high rankings to COMSTOCK, BONESHAKER and Carriger on the Hugo and the Campbell, so it’s not like this is bad company to keep.

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2 Responses to Review of (and plug for) Mary Hobson's NATIVE STAR

  1. 1
    Ben Lehman says:

    Since you didn’t mention it at all in the book, but the title seems to beg the question: Are there any Indians, Chinese, blacks, or Mexicans in this alternate history?

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    Yes. We see Indians onstage in major roles, not the others.