This was another insomnia read, picked up in the dark hours when no one but me is awake. Pretty much with an insomnia read I’m just looking for readability, which is one of those terms that is probably not that helpful. Maybe I should go onto Karen’s Reader’s Advisory group and try to define this readable beast.
Tone: light to medium
Setting: not contemporary, possibly with magic, aliens, gadgets or other neat ideas that are fun to watch play out
Admittedly, these are just my criteria, but this is my insomnia and I’m sticking to it.
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, on the dust jacket, is likened to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I think works insofar as they are both mild alt-histories with magic as the alternate part of history, but the tone and pacing are very, very different. I would not want to read anything with footnotes, as much fun as they are in Strange & Norrell, in the odd hours. And as much as I love Strange & Norrell , the pace is glaaaacial. (And not to be be bitch, I think Strange & Norrell is a better book, by whatever odd metric I have for judging writing and content, fwiw. Just not better in the middle of the night.)
But! The other thing I like about likening this to Strange & Norrell is that neither one is steampunk, a label I see applied to this one. Forsooth, arguing about genre is a losing business, but just because something is an alternate history set in the late 1800s, that isn’t enough to make it steampunk. Magic ain’t gadgets, and a certain kind of fetishized retro-technology porn is an inextricable part of the (sub)-genre. But! I’m willing to concede that this is in the odd dash-punk edge of alt-history. I noticed some similarities between the sanguimages from this book and the warlocks in Bitter Seeds – indeed, both are termed warlocks, a nice double entendre on their need for blood to perform magic, and their usefulness in wartime. Tregillis’s book also has magic and something like steampunk – though maybe it’s more gaspunk? Sorry, Ian, wherever you are. I don’t know how to class your book, or this.
It’s like there is a cluster of dash-punk genres – alternate histories that keep coding and recoding history with various magics and the magics of technologies, pushing the true history to reveal itself. Mike has noted that most alt-histories have alt-histories written within them, and Native Star is no different: here, it is a series of pulp novels that comment on the magic-working characters, which is not dissimilar to the pulp novels in Raising Stony Mayhall. I have said this a thousand times before, but I do not care about originality, so if it seems like my comparisons to other books are intended to cut this one down, that is not my intent. This is a genre exercise, whatever that genre may be, and the parameters of the world and characters are individual enough to put down any talk of being a poor copy. I mean, points for a giant oil-soaked killer raccoon alone, if novelty is your bag.
So far, this is the worst book report ever, me blathering about things only interesting to me. So, to the plot summary:
The Native Star starts with a small town witch, Emily, with money problems putting the whammy on the town babbitt, in an move that backfires into zombies and some irate townspeople. She ends up with a magical stone lodged in her hand – don’t ask – and then the story is off and tumbling in a post-Civil War Old West. Her compatriot through these tumbles is a man called Dreadnought Stanton, which is possibly the stupidest name ever, and I never did figure why Emily was the only character with a non-stupid name. The beginning rankled a bit, what with the silly names and the poor characterizations – yes, Emily is smart but uneducated; yes, Dreadnought (ugh) is a stuffed shirt patrician type, but with seeeekrits. But – and this so rarely seems to happen for me – the characterizations completely tighten up as the book progresses, the stock characters thawing into something resembling humans. The action is well-written, and the banter ranging from not-distracting to super fun. I was expecting certain inevitable twists that ended up being different enough from my expectations to be satisfying. I’ll just say: fuck yeah, hubris!
I even came to peace with the names, which end up being often Dickensian and sly. There’s a lot of really funny hat-tips in this book, like the bounty hunter with an Italian accent who seems to have walked off the set of a Spaghetti Western. I found this delightful, especially because it was underplayed. And – this is going to be huge tangent – but can someone please write on of these dash-punk action thrillers in the Reconstruction South? There seems to be a lot of fictions that center on the myth of the Old West in narrating our American discomfort with Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and – you know – all that blood let to forge the melting pot in the first place. And how the culture wars still rage along lines set down at the time.
The bestest of these fictions, to me, is the HBO series Deadwood, but there’s plenty more stories in that well, from Eastwood’s Unforgiven to the sublime moody weirdness of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This book opens with magical carpetbaggers slitting the throats of conciliatory but angry Southern merchants, and, hot damn, I really wish there had been more of that, as much fun as the Old West stuff was. But the dash-punk genre seems to encode these anxieties into magic or gasmasks or whatever, so I guess I can’t expect them to take on the Reconstruction South, when pretty much no one wants to touch that live wire, genre or not. Hobson does take on Grant’s presidency and the war obliquely, in a way I haven’t completely teased out yet, so that is something. (And I’m shit for history, really, so it would be cool if someones like Eric or Matt read this and gave me a book report. I’ll totally mail this to you. Kthxbai.)
So. There are things I could bitch about (not excited about the Native characters) and things I could praise (excited by the proto-feminist characters), but what it comes down to is that this was the right book at the right time. And not just to sound like I’m faint-praising this book for being a pretty midnight tumble, I spent the day thinking about the characters and the alt-history, unknotting some later plot developments and choices. There’s a lot of smart and funny here in all of the relentless action. Hot damn, that’s something, insomnia or not.