In The Hidden Goddess, Love Isn’t Easy, Especially When Battling An Aztec Legend

In The Hidden Goddess, the sequel to M.K. Hobson's Nebula-nominated Native Star, our protagonists are safe in New York and ready to begin their lives together. Unfortunately, the troubles that plagued them before — magic-hating Russians, death-goo, blood sorcerers — come roaring right back.

Despite a rocky start to their relationship, Emily Edwards and Dreadnought Stanton are engaged, and they'd love nothing more than a simple wedding and some time alone. But that's impossible, because Dreadnought must spend every moment shoring up his shaky credibility as the leader of the Credomancer's Institute. That leaves Emily to her own devices. Rather than learn the social rules of Gilded Age New York, she starts investigating her own past and gets mixed up with a bunch of scientists who want to purge the world of magic and a bunch of soldiers who want to unleash Itztlacoliuhqui, a very unpleasant Aztec goddess.

As our story opens, Emily Edwards is trapped. She's not being menaced by the blood sorcerers or villainous Russian scientists bent on shutting the entire practice of magic. She's stuck in an overheated New York City parlor, in a horrifically uncomfortable taffeta gown, listening to an appalling recitation of Wordsworth and staring at some truly tacky wallpaper. Worst of all, she can't escape without drawing down the considerable wrath of her future mother-in-law. Because as part and parcel of marrying Dreadnought, Em has to learn to be a proper society wife. It's not going very well.

The Hidden Goddess makes for frustrating reading, because the main character is so very likable and her situation so very claustrophobic. She's in love with Dreadnought, but his world is basically awful. For one thing, the entire magical system of credomancy is based around public perception. His powers and his leadership is therefore based on elaborate, early American PR efforts. Because he refuses to give up Emily, Dreadnought's advisers have to work around her by co-opting the poor girl into their narrative. They begin to mold the feisty witch into a sweet, naive cattle baron's daughter. She's not allowed to go out on her own, she can't "distract" Dreadnought, and she's generally required to act the part of May Welland day and night.

This does present something of a problem for the book. Hobson is limited by the restrictions placed on young ladies of the time in terms of what she can do with the setting. Emily can't exactly go swanning through the Fulton Market or Five Points for some sightseeing (though she does manage a disastrous trip to the Bowery.) We see mostly see the insides of various houses, especially the Credomancer's Institute. Nevertheless, Emily manages to cover a lot of ground as she tries to unravel her mother's background. She starts with just her mother's calling card, some earrings, a pair of hair sticks and a potion containing her mysteriously missing childhood memories. At first, the pieces don't fit together very well and require some serious sleuthing.

At times, Emily's blundering about verges dangerously on too stupid to live. Sure, every time she tries to bring her (very legitimate) concerns to someone, they basically tell her to go back to looking pretty. But it's still maddening to watch Emily try to unravel the puzzle of her own existence by herself. Despite her promises to her stepfather and Dreadnought, she downs the potion without anyone to make sure there aren't any ill effects. But she always pulls back before doing anything truly stupid, and it's sometimes fun to see a protagonist turn out to be every bit as important as she thinks she is.

Hobson also does a great job of further developing the world she created in Native Star. We finally get an explanation of the Sini Mira, the sketchy Russians who've been chasing Emily for quite some time. (It turns out they're not quite as villainous as they seem, though they're pretty implacable.) We learn where exactly where Emily's parents came from. But more than trying to solve every mystery and answer every question, The Hidden Goddess is a romp rich with fun details. Emily and Dreadnought basically text each other back and forth, using a pair of magical slates; we meet the one person who won't be swayed by credomancers' tricks (and it's a reporter for the New York Times, of course).

But the best part of the book is the angst. Oh, the angst! The course of true love never did run smooth, but Emily and Dreadnought face a particularly rocky path. It's a constant refrain in the book that "true love isn't enough — but it's a start." His order has zero respect for her abilities or background. She, on the other hand, cannot approve of the way his job requires him to compromise his integrity. When the fault lines start to show, it's heart-wrenching for everyone involved and both characters slide into listen-to-The-Smiths-in-a-dark-room misery. Now, that may or may not be your thing. But if it is, The Hidden Goddess is pure, grade-A product.