The Native Staris a fantasy set in a West that never quite was: the West of tall tales, dime novels, and cheesy patent-medicine ads. M.K. Hobson realizes this mood perfectly, peoples the setting with memorable characters, and spins a compelling and well-thought-out plot.
When we first meet the heroine, Emily Edwards, she’s preparing a love spell to ensnare a local lumberman. The new patent-magic companies have cut into Emily’s business as a witch, and she can see no other way but marriage to keep herself and her father afloat. The spell is terribly unethical, of course — yet there was a part of me that found this scene refreshing. In fantasy there are so many anachronistic heroines who fight marriage with tooth and claw, even when it’s a viable solution to their problems and even when they live in a time when it’s one of very few options open to women. Emily’s more practical than that. Plus, it’s beautifully written!
Hobson has the guts to make Emily flawed in other ways, too. When she first meets Native Americans, for example, she reacts with prejudice. As her journey continues, Emily becomes more sophisticated in some ways but remains rough around the edges in others. She never loses the scrappy practicality that she displays in the first scene. Meanwhile, her traveling companion and eventual love interest, Dreadnought Stanton, is just as vivid. His snarky, condescending attitude made me wish Alan Rickman were thirty again so he could play him in a (hypothetical) film — and his aloof façade masks a secret or two. The Native Star is equal parts fantasy and romance, and the sparks between Emily and Dreadnought make the latter aspect compelling.
As for the fantasy, that’s terrifically thought-out as well. The magic system feels both historically rooted and fresh; it’s based largely on real-world folklore but given a rationale and a structure by Hobson. The terrifying Aberrancies fit well into folklore too; they’re oversized, crazed versions of ordinary creatures, and seem exactly like what you might find in a tall tale. One aspect of the magic has a clear parallel in present-day environmental issues, but it works well and rarely feels preachy.
The plot is twisty and exciting as Emily and Dreadnought travel across the country to find someone who can help extricate them from a magical problem in which they’re mired. The ending is satisfactory but leaves room for further developments in the sequel, The Hidden Goddess. I recommend The Native Star to fans of steampunk, Western fantasy, and historical romance.