Sunday 6 October 2013

#CBR5 Book 125. "The Native Star" by M.K. Hobson

Page count: 346 pages
Rating. 4 stars

In an alternate Civil War America where magic not only exists, but is changing the world. Warlocks train as elite enforcers for the government, and there are all manner of glorious new inventions helped along by magic. Miss Emily Edwards is a witch living in rural Sierra Nevada, trying to compete against the shiny promises of mail order patent magics. Her adopted father, who taught her everything she knows, is now blind, and they're facing starvation and possibly worse unless Emily comes up with something clever soon. In her desperation, she casts a love spell on the most prosperous settler in town, but it backfires badly, and when she finds herself with a magical stone embedded in her hand, she's forced to leave town quickly before she's driven out.

Reluctantly accepting the aid of the pompous and and condescending college-trained New York warlock Dreadnought Stanton (who was sent to Emily's little town for unknown reasons), Emily finds herself pursued by several different factions of warlocks, all wanting the magical artifact she carries. They travel from San Francisco across the country, with their straits becoming more and more dire and their enemies more ruthless the closer they get to New York.

September's alt pick in Vaginal Fantasy Hangout turned out to be a very enjoyable book, if somewhat less raunchy than some of the books selected in the book club. While the book is set in an alternate universe, which isn't so much Steampunk as Magic-punk, and in America, rather than in Victorian England, which is so often the case, there is a lot to enjoy for a reader of inventive historical fiction. Emily makes some questionable choices at the beginning of the book, but it's clear that she does so out of sheer desperation, and she certainly has a whammy of karmic backlash because of her rash actions. Of unknown parentage, she ended up in the tiny village of Lost Pine when her dying mother, fleeing from some unknown threat, left her there as a child. Adopted by the local warlock, she's not particularly worldly, and not at all bothered with all the points of propriety and etiquette a young unmarried woman should probably consider. Having grown up in a tiny mountain community, she's also rather ignorant and sheltered about the ways of others. When they encounter a tribe of native Americans, she's both fearful and downright racist at first.

She obviously shouldn't travel alone and unchaperoned with a near stranger, but needs must. The amazingly named Dreadnought Stanton is not exactly the travel companion she may have wished for, but he knows that the stone mysteriously lodged in her hand is important, and offers her money enough to help her father if she accompanies him to his mentor, so they can investigate the artifact further. Stanton starts the book as judgemental, supercilious, arrogant and condescending. He believes his own modern magical ways far superior to those of backwoods practitioners like Emily and Mr. Edwards. Despite his stuffiness and reserve, he clearly grows very protective of Emily, and determines to get her to New York safely, no matter what the cost.

For a debut novel, this has a very elaborate and well-plotted story, and the various magic systems featured over the course of the book were great. Neither branch of magic is presented as intrinsically worse than the others, although the evil warlocks seem to favour sinister blood magic and aren't afraid to kill to get what they want. I liked a post Civil War world where technology is being developed with the help of magic as well as science, and that there were factions within the book who equate magic with the Devil and want nothing to do with it. This is the first book in a series, so there are a number of mysteries, such as that of Emily's true parentage, set up. Not all of these things are resolved, but I'm assuming they will be later in the series.

Emily and Stanton travel across country, facing a great number of challenges, and obviously grow closer over the course of their journey. There is an underlying romantic subplot, but it's very gradually and so subtly developed, until the unresolved sexual tension is intense. It seems absolutely impossible at the start of the book that either main character would have any romantic interest in the other, but by the end of the book, it's quite obvious that they're a great match. I'd never heard of M.K. Hobson or her books before this, but will absolutely check out more books in the series, to find out what happens next.

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