The Native Star
by M.K. Hobson
Cover Artist: David Stevenson, based on photgraph by
Herman Estevez (woman) and Ingram Publishing/Alamy (hands)
Review by Cathy Green
Spectra Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553592658
Date: 31 August 2010 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Native Star opens in the small Sierra Nevada logging and mining town of Lost Pine. Emily Edwards, the town Witch is attempting a love spell called the Ashes of Amour to make Dag Hansen, owner of the town lumber mill fall in love with her. Emily's reason for doing to spell is that her adoptive father's health is not good and the townspeople are not coming to her for spells and charms anymore due to an influx of industrially produced mail order magic patent medicines from back East. Hansen is a good man, someone she could like and could grow to love, and he will be a good provider for her and her father.
In addition to the influx of commercially produced magic charms, Emily also has cause for concern in the presence of Dreadnought Stanton, a properly trained warlock from New York City, who seems to dislike and look down on Emily. Warlocks generally don't like witches - warlocks being school-trained and witches being generally less powerful, self-trained, and women. Emily and Stanton both wind up at the Old China Mine when the Corpse Switch (vivification control switch) that controls the mining zombies fails. They save the town and the mine, but in the process Emily ends up with the blue gemstone that turns out to be the titular Native Star embedded in her hand. Neither she nor Stanton is able to remove the stone, and it sucks the magic out of the surrounding area, making Emily a danger to herself and unable to reverse the spell she put on Dag.
The effects of the stone also make her dangerous to other practitioners of magic and potentially pretty much the entire country, since this is an alternate United States that runs on magic. Stanton decides that the best thing to do is take Emily first to San Francisco and then back East to the Mirabilis Institute and his teacher Professor Mirabilis. This results in a cross-country journey in which they are chased by others who also want the stone in Emily's hand, and they travel by horseback, train, and steampunk flying machine while encountering other magicians, religious fanatics, Miwok Indians and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.
Hobson has set up an interesting alternate United States where nearly everyone believes in magic and industry and spells go hand in hand. In Hobson's universe, there are three types of magic: credomancy; sangrimancy, and animancy. Animancy is spirit magic and involves working with the life essences that animate living things. The Miwok Indians and their Holy Woman Komé practice a form of animancy. Sangrimancy is blood magic. This is one of Hobson's creepier inventions. Sangrimancy is taught at the military academies and military warlocks are sangrimancers. There is a scene late in Native Star in which Stanton and Emily are confronted by a high ranking military officer and warlock who orders his sergeant to step forward and be drained of blood so that the officer can work a spell. Enlisted personnel assigned to units with sangrimancers are basically just walking blood banks. Credomancy, the type of magic practiced by Dreadnought Stanton, requires belief not just by the spellcaster but by others as well. This leads to a funny scene on the train where Stanton essentially talks several people out of belief in evolution and scientific rationalism, because it's bad for magic.
Once Emily is at the Mirabilis Institute, the staff do their best to make Emily feel insignificant and inferior by providing her with servant's clothes and belittling her in order to undermine her confidence and enhance their power over her. Fortunately, Stanton anticipated that situation and arranged for Miss Pendennis of the Witches' Friendly Society to be there to advocate for Emily. Once at the Institute, there's quite a bit of intrigue, leading to a dramatic climax involving practitioners of all three forms of magic collectively attempting a ritual to remove the Native Star from Emily's hand to save her life and possibly the planet itself.
Native Star is a page-turner of a book, that is probably best classified as steam-punk influenced fantasy. Hobson has described the book as “bustlepunk,” which makes sense given that the focus is not on mechanical steam-powered devices, dirigibles, and male inventors but rather on Emily, her magic and her journey. Some readers may find Emily's interaction with the Miwoks to be problematic. She is initially quite hostile towards them, but the prejudices she has reflect the feelings that a lot of white settlers in the American West (and in 19th century America in general) had towards the Native population. The characterization of the Miwok holy woman Komé may also strike some as the stereotypical magical native who sacrifices herself for the benefit of the white protagonist. I do not think that is exactly what is going on in Native Star, as Komé is more concerned with the Native Star gem embedded in Emily's hand than she is with Emily's personal growth. Komé's actions are more about protecting the Native Star to heal the spirit of the earth, and assistance to Emily is more of a necessary byproduct, given that Emily's got the gem embedded in her hand and cannot get it out.
Other than that one issue, readers should enjoy the adventure and romance of this page-turner of a book. While Hobson resolves the issue of getting the gem out of Emily's hand before it kills her and destroys the Earth, she's also neatly set up the mystery of Emily's origins and biological parents and the various magical factions fighting for dominance. The sequel, Hidden Goddess, is out now, but Native Star should definitely be read first, as it establishes the alternate history and introduces the readers to Dreadnought Stanton and Emily Edwards, the main characters of the series.