Review: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” by Jessica Cluess


We review Jessica Cluess’ “A Shadow Bright and Burning,” the first installment in her “Kingdom on Fire” series.

A Shadow Bright and Burning is the first installment in author Jessica Cluess’ new Kingdom on Fire trilogy.

The novel takes place in a Victorian-era England where magic is real. It follows the story of Henrietta Howell, the literal girl on fire. After it becomes public knowledge Henrietta can burst into flames, the law says she’s supposed to be executed. Instead, she’s taken to an elite sorcerer school to train. See, everyone thinks she’s the fulfillment of a prophecy meant to end humanity’s war with the Ancients, seven demons out to destroy the world. Problem is, she’s actually not.

I’m a little late to the party on this novel – as with most things I stumble upon almost accidentally, this book was a recommendation I got because I’d liked something else. (Let’s be real, it was probably Throne of Glass again.) A Shadow Bright and Burning originally released at the end of September. But I’m here to say that if you too slept on picking up this great book, now is the time to correct that mistake. Because it’s really fantastic, and the sequel has rocketed into a top spot on my most anticipated of 2017 list.

There are roughly twenty-six great things about this novel – I positively flew through reading it – but here are my top three.

The Premise and Setting Feel So Original

It’s not as though the idea that magic is real is a new twist in YA literature. However, A Shadow Bright and Burning manages to make the idea of a chosen, magical savior somehow feel fresh. The novel is set in Victorian-era England, but not the one we from our history. In this version, magic not only exists, there’s a whole hierarchy of sorcerers, magicians and witches in place. And women, for a variety of reasons that are basically all misogynistic, are not allowed to be part of it. In fact, witches are put to death if they’re discovered.

Meanwhile, England is under assault by a gang of bloodythirsty demon Ancients, who’ve been unleashed upon the world through a portal. They resemble nothing so much as a Lovecraftian Eldritch horror come to life. These seven monsters – Korozoth, R’helm, Nemneris, Callax, On-Tez, Zem and Molochoron – are all very different, with varied targets and preferred methods of destruction. They’re fascinating – and really scary. We don’t know exactly what the Ancients want beyond destroying stuff, or why they all appear to be aligned with one another. This actually makes them a bit creepier, in my opinion. Well, that and the fact that we never really get a full description of most of them. They just sort of appear out of nowhere, wrecking cities and ships, and we don’t really get a good look at them. It’s like trying to look up and see Godzilla, or one of the Kaiju from Pacific Rim.

The world-building here is deftly handled – we get enough details to understand what’s going on, but aren’t buried in exposition. And the setting remains an interesting and active part of the story throughout – the magical class system impacts every aspect of Henrietta’s life. And the war with the Ancients feels never-ending.

Henrietta is a Fabulous Heroine

Henrietta Howell is a fantastic heroine. She’s resourceful, brave, smart, and determined to prove herself. She’s compassionate, kind and loyal to those she cares about. But Henrietta is also often stubborn and definitely willing to lie when she feels like she needs to. She makes plenty of mistakes, but still learns from them. In short: It’s really hard not to like her.

Henrietta’s struggled to succeed is very realistic and endearing. She very much wants to be the female sorcerer who proves the current sexist hierarchy wrong. She wants to help the people stuck outside the inner circle of protected London who are at most at risk of an Ancient attack. And she wants to keep herself and her BFF Rook safe. However, she’s so used to having to obfuscate some part of herself in order to survive. It makes sense that her default response to, well, pretty much anything is to lie about it.

That Henrietta turns out to not be the Chosen One after all adds another interesting layer to her character. It also wrestles with an important theme that often gets overlooked in this genre. if you aren’t the “Chosen One”, if you’re just some ordinary person, are you still valuable? Can you still save the day? The answer, to Henrietta, is clearly yes, which sets off an internal struggle about whether she should even mention anything about this to anyone. Henrietta is a hero who gets to occupy a space that’s remarkably gray, and her character reflects that struggle.

It’s a Girl Power Story, in the Best Way

In a move that’s really out of the ordinary for a piece of YA genre fiction, Shadow doesn’t have a love triangle. It doesn’t even really have that much in the way of a love story. Sure, Henrietta develops complicated relationships with several men over the course of the novel. Several of them could possibly be love interests down the road. (One of them surely will be – this is a YA book after all.) But this story is all about Henrietta and her journey. And it’s a refreshing change, to be allowed to really get to know our heroine and many of the people around her, before we have to rate them as potential romantic partners.

This book is also wonderfully feminist. The fact that Henrietta is a woman attempting to survive and succeed in a man’s world underpins everything that happens in Shadow. All of Henrietta’s successes and failures are heightened by the fact that she’s basically carrying the weight of her whole gender on her shoulders. She’s isolated in a way that no other character is – or can be, for that matter.

Many of the male sorcerers Henrietta encounters doubt her because she is a woman. They believe she cannot possibly be their equal, and only grudgingly acknowledge her talents or hard work. And in this alternate Victorian culture, we can’t forget that women weren’t allowed to practice magic at all. Many were even put to death for doing so. In fact, women are blamed for the entire war with the Ancients, since it was a witch who opened the portal that summoned the monsters in the first place. Henrietta’s not only struggling to figure out who she is, she’s trying to navigate how to survive in a world that doesn’t particularly want to see her succeed.

Should You Read It?

As the first novel in a trilogy, A Shadow Bright and Burning serves as introduction to a whole new world. But it still stands as its own story, and is a fun, exciting read. It certainly has many elements that will be familiar to YA fantasy fans. But they’re somehow all assembled in a way that feels new, like this story is one that hasn’t been told before. It has a satisfying ending, for the most part, but still leaves many questions unanswered at its conclusion.

We don’t know where Henrietta herself – or even the war against the Ancients – will go after this. There’s a sense that big changes are coming for everyone, from Queen Victoria on down. And there’s a lot we still don’t know about Henrietta’s world. The story of the witch who unleashed the Ancients seems like an important one to tell. We also have clear mysteries lurking in the pasts of both the Howell and Blackwood families. So there’s plenty of story still to tell.

Next: 11 Non-Fiction Books About Famous Women That You Should Read

The next book in the Kingdom on Fire series is due in 2017.