Serena’s Review: “A Shadow Bright and Burning”

23203252Book: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: I am Henrietta Howel. The first female sorcerer. The prophesied one. Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. When she is brought to London to train with Her Majesty’s sorcerers, she meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, young men eager to test her powers and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her. As Henrietta discovers the secrets hiding behind the glamour of sorcerer life, she begins to doubt that she’s the true prophesied one. With battle looming, how much will she risk to save the city–and the one she loves?

Review: I featured this book back on one of my highlights posts, and low and behold it finally showed up on my library hold shelf! While I sped through the story and it did avoid most YA tropes that are immediate turn offs for me, I ultimately found myself slightly underwhelmed.

As the book description proves, this story is pretty typical young adult fantasy fare, right down to the special power being fire-related (why is it always fire??). I have to say, if I were an author, I’d be staying as far away as I could from anything that might leave my main character open to “girl on fire” comparisons to Katnis…but that’s just me. Further, the introduction of a million and one love interests, a secret life that she must hide, and a prophesy, completes the trope infestation. But, like I said, Cluess did do just enough to avoid falling completely into any one of these pitfalls.

Henrietta, first off, was a good narrator. She isn’t going to win any awards as the most exciting protagonists out there, but her voice was still interesting and she rarely had any “too dumb to live” moments that one sees too often. The setting, an alternate Victorian London that is under siege by a host of powerful magical entities, was creative, but also opened up the door for one of my biggest sticking points with the book.

There’s an inherent struggle when writing any book that has ties to actual history. The protagonist, especially a young woman character, needs to be true to her time, but the author still needs to create room for her to move. Too often, we have young women with ideas that are far too progressive, or who seems to too easily shuck off the constraints of her time period. So, here, I appreciated what Cluess tried to do. There are several moments where it is clear that Henrietta struggles with the mindset about women’s capabilities that is woven deep into this time period’s culture. However, ultimately, her path is just as easy, leaving the story feeling very awkward. And, while I appreciate the attempts to keep these biases realistic, there were almost too many of them, or they were awkwardly placed, undoing and often muddying the character’s own story arc.

For example, at one point, after Henrietta has already proven to herself and many around her that she is a powerful force to be dealt with, another character expresses a very misogynistic opinion to her, and she simply rolls over and agrees. Obviously, one show of force by a powerful young woman isn’t going to change the minds of everyone, but I would have liked to see the character’s own perspective on these things adjust accordingly as the book progressed and she gained more confidence in herself. A story of a young woman growing to appreciate her own strength and question what she has been told is the obvious route for a story like this, and ultimately, that’s where the narrative is going. But, as I said, these moments were still woven throughout the book in a very odd way that left me feeling off balance with regards to Henrietta’s actual character arc. It felt like the character’s growth was being sacrificed to continue the charade of her own insecurity (another one of my least favorite tropes: the character who must remain insecure just to garner compliments from those around them).

And, of course, there were the whiffs of a love triangle. The story avoids my biggest qualm with this trope, when it takes over the story in place of actual action, but it’s still there, and I don’t feel that it adds anything to the narrative itself. If it had been left out completely, I honestly feel like there would have been absolutely zero change to the story itself, and that’s never a good thing. And, due to this and my general wariness from being once burned, twice shy, it was hard to become fully invested in the many, many young men characters that surround Henrietta, as I have no idea which one will be the next love-triangle fodder in following sequels.

Ultimately, while the story was enjoyable and I was able to speed through it without any major hiccups, this book isn’t doing anything new for the genre. Almost every piece of it felt familiar and reminiscent of one or another young adult fantasy series. If you enjoy this type of story, then go ahead and read it. But if you’re looking for a new take on young adult fantasy, or are too burned out on some of these tropes (love triangles, special girl with special powers, limited world building), then you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating 6: While inoffensive, it was also slightly uncreative and had a few too many familiar pieces trying to pose as unique.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Shadow Bright and Burning” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Victorian YA Novels” and “ParaHistorical Fiction.”

Find “A Shadow Bright and Burning” at your library using WorldCat.

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