A Shadow Bright and Burning
Random House (9781524701444)
If you like your YA fantasy a little different from usual, but still with a kind of old-school feel, then you definitely want to check out A Shadow Bright and Burning. It reminded me of The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman. It’s a pleasant mix of Victorian society culture and magic. Where The Dark Days Club leans more heavily on the Victorian part and monsters operating from the shadows (*In every generation there is a Chosen one*… sorry. Geeked out for a moment with my favourite pop culture reference), in A Shadow Bright and Burning the monsters are completely out in the open and ruining the English countryside like the stiff upper lip deeply offended them.
The use of both magicians and sorcerers gives it a bit of a feel of The Bone Season, but I do have to warn you that the comparison stops there. The Bone Season is almost incomparable, and for me a solid 5 stars. But there is a mixing of different magic styles that I like very much and that you can see here too. But despite all these influences, A Shadow Bright and Burning doesn’t really live up to its potential. It reads as if there was a good idea, which is then decently worked into a book. But it’s a bit here nor there. It has its own sound, but doesn’t do that good of a job carving out a place for itself among the other YA fantasy novels.
I think my biggest issue with it, is that the pace seems to be set a bit too quickly. There is much happening, and Jessica Cluess has tried to put all of that in the first book of the series. Henrietta is declared the prophecy girl and thrust into a life of opulence and safety behind the Londen barrier, where she will be trained. She meets with different kinds of reactions from the boys (a few too many) also in training. It is quite easy to pick out who will end up trustworthy or friendly, and who will seem so but turn out not to be. I do have to admit that when we come to that, Jessica Cluess uses the limited space in this book to good effect. She makes it clear how these interpersonal relationships work, shift and then settle again. But because she handles it well, I would have liked more of it.
But there are also the monsters and the mystery of Rook’s injuries. I find him a bit cumbersome to the story. He is almost literally lugged around by everyone until he becomes relevant – about three quarters into the book. That’s not exactly the best use of character in a cast of already so many people. I think the same goes for the Gwendolyn Agrippa-mystery. I would have liked more build-up to that reveal, because I thought it fitted very well into the story and deserved some more attention.
The monsters are mostly still underdeveloped. They are described and the scariest one is quickly identified. He also shows an uncanny interest in Henrietta, and I assume this is coming into play later, but I think here Jessica Cluess is stalling a bit too much. I think it all comes down to the pacing of this book, as I said. A Shadow Bright and Burning sometimes runs, then treads water, and it seems to be doing so in the wrong places. Henrietta discovers – in my opinion – far too quickly what exactly is wrong with her and why her destiny as prophecy girl is problematic. This could easily have become a problem in the second book. Give us some more time to get invested in her as prophecy girl and then turn it upside down. There aren’t really stakes anyway. It is quite clear she is the prophecy girl.
The problem with fast paces and a lot of things happening, is that the reader starts juggling a great many things early on. The reveals would be far more suited to a duology than a trilogy, though I don’t have the foresight of knowing what else is going to come up in books two and three. If the pace slows down considerably after this, then I’m going to be a little annoyed the plot wasn’t spaced out better.
The problem with YA fantasy novels is that you have to walk a fine line. You must take care that you go deep enough for the fantasy readers (which I am), but also keep it moving fast enough for it to qualify as a YA novel. For A Shadow Bright and Burning Jessica Cluess seems to be suffering from the same problem V.E. Schwab had with A Darker Shade of Magic. The plot should have been worked as a full blown fantasy novel, while instead it is scaled down to fit into YA. It’s not exactly doing either genre justice that way.
This said, and I know I have been mostly focusing on the negative, I found it a compelling enough read that I want to continue on with the next two books. The different kinds of magic clashing and eventually having to come together (too bad it’s already obvious) are an interesting enough read. To knock down different monsters each with their own distinctive set of problems and solutions, is compelling. Considering we have two books for about four monsters, including the big bad, I think Jessica Cluess has a lot of writing to do.