The Native Star, by M.K. Hobson. Ballantine Books, 2010. 387 pp. 978-0-553-59265-8.
... in which a small town witch gets caught up with warlocks, dark magic, zombies and a mysterious artifact.
The Native Star is set in an alternate history of post-Civil War America (1876, to be exact). Ulysses S. Grant is president. The country is still recovering from the war, which was partially won through use of magic. The tides of industry and progress are starting to sweep across the country, and the changes are being felt in a small mining town in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. The town witch, Emily Edwards, finds that she is going out of business because people are increasingly turning to factory produced charms and potions and spells, instead of coming to her. Emily makes the decision to cast a love spell on the most eligible bachelor in town, hoping that he'll marry her and her money woes will be over. The spell backfires, but before Emily can fix it, she gets swept up in a zombie battle that results in her acquiring a rare, powerful artifact that hinders her ability to do magic. Finding that more powerful forces will do anything to get the artifact, Emily is forced to flee her home. Dreadnought Stanton (a deliberately pompous name) is a warlock visiting from New York City, and he agrees to accompany her to San Francisco, where magical scholars will hopefully be able to unlock the mystery of the artifact, called the Native Star. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned, and Emily and Dreadnought are forced to flee across the country to New York.
I chose to read this book because it's a finalist for the prestigious Nebula Award, which is given out every year to a particularly exceptional work of science fiction or fantasy. The winner is chosen by a group of professional science fiction and fantasy writers, and usually the winning book is quite excellent. My expectations were somewhat reduced when I saw that the (very stupid and cliched) tagline on the front of the book is "Sometimes love is the most dangerous magic of all", but I still went in with fairly high expectations.
By far and away the biggest strength of this book is the world building. It has elements of a lot of familiar trends in fantasy: magic, powerful artifacts, alternate histories, zombies, and a hint of steampunk. The author manages to bring all of these elements together to create a richly textured world where everything plausibly falls together. The level of detail is quite high, which goes a long way towards the quality of the world building. The setting is recognizably Old West America, with horses and outlaws and corsets and trains, but the magical elements have been convincingly worked in to the historical aspects. For example, witches and warlocks can choose to practice several different branches of magic, though one branch of magic is reserved for use in the United States military, which is what led to the USA's victory over the south in the war.
Another strength of the book is the plotting and pacing for the first 3/4 or so of the book. For the majority of the book, the plot of the story moves along at a nice pace... fast enough to keep the reader's attention, but not so fast to feel rushed. For most of the book, the plot complexity stays appropriate for a book of this length... it's not a simple plot, but it's not the twisted, multi-strand plots that you expect from 800 page epics. Unfortunately, the plot and pacing fall apart in the last quarter of the book. In the last hundred pages or so, we meet maybe a dozen new characters, each of whom has their own backstory and their own plans for Emily and the Native Star. The plot speeds up to the point where events tumble one after the other, with no pause in between, and each of the dozen new characters has some significance to the multitude of events crammed together. It gets muddled and confusing... I read the ending twice and I am still left with only a fuzzy idea of what happened and why.
A second weakness of the book is that neither of the main characters are really gripping. Emily is a nice but bland young woman who waffles between being helplessly confused and abrasively assertive. Dreadnought Stanton is arrogant and closed off, making it hard to feel much empathy for a guy who apparently cares only about himself and has no emotions for anything else. Eventually both characters loosen up a bit, with Emily finding a middle ground between helpless and rashly self-assured, and Dreadnought does come out of his shell over the course of the story. However, the romance between the two of them still feels a little forced and unlikely. The secondary characters in the story are very well done, considering how little page-time most of them get. The main villains in the story are appropriately chilling and creepy, but believable. One of them is a perfect embodiment of how extreme patriotism can go awry, perhaps a commentary on some recent events in the US. Dag, the young man that Emily ensorcels with a love spell, is one of the nicer characters, and one of the more heart-wrenching scenes in the book involves him.
The Native Star is clearly the first book in a series. The many new characters introduced in the end will have some part to play in the sequel, which was released a few days ago.
Recommended reading for fans of historical fantasy and richly detailed world building. If you enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this is for you.