April 04, 2011

BOOKS: The Native Star, M. K. Hobson (2010)

Continuing my journey through this year's Nebula-nominated novels, we come to this odd hodgepodge of Harlequin romance, historical fiction, and fantasy. (I hasten to add that "Harlequin" is not meant to be pejorative, merely descriptive; it's a genre that isn't my cup of tea, but a lot of people enjoy it, and I try very hard not to be a genre snob.)

It's about a decade after the Civil War, and Emily Edwards is a witch in a small northern California town. Her business is slowly dwindling because people are buying newfangled patent magics instead of coming to her. There is another magician in town -- the arrogant warlock Dreadnought Stanton (yes, "Dreadnought"), who comes from New York and clearly looks down on Emily and her unsophisticated, untrained magic. But when Emily finds herself in possession of a mysterious magical artifact, she is forced to accept Stanton's company on a dangerous journey to find Professor Mirabilis, who may be the only one who can save her from the artifact's power.

Hobson's strong suit here is in her characters, who are admittedly marching through the standard romance plot -- they hate one another before realizing they're madly in love -- but are more fully rounded than we normally get in this sort of romance.

Where she falls short is in plotting, and she often falls into the obvious trap for tales of magic and fantasy; new magic tricks and new forms of wonder can be hauled onstage whenever the plot requires, whether or not there's been any mention of them before. When Emily and Stanton find themselves stranded in the midwest, for instance, unable to continue their journey to New York by train, what should turn up out of nowhere but a flying machine? It's awfully convenient, and we'd been given no earlier hint that such a thing existed. (And we're two-thirds of the way through the book at that point, so it's not as if Hobson hadn't had the chance to mention it somewhere along the way.)

There is an epilogue that exists primarily to let us know that there will be a sequel, and I hold out some hope that the second book could be much better than the first. If Hobson has now laid out all of her groundwork and magical rules, then the second book might have fewer annoying deus ex machina moments. Of course, it's possible that she'll just keep making shit up as she goes along, in which case the second book is likely to be precisely what The Native Star is -- a frustrating disappointment with occasional flashes of potential.

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