The review contains some spoilers 0 read at your own discretion.
I’ll be honest, I was hesitant about this book, unsure of what to expect. I was immediately worried by the fact that half of the book synopsis focused on the “handsome young men” Henrietta would meet and her relationships with them. Yet the intrigue of magic and an alternate Victorian England was simply too much, so of course I picked A Shadow Bright and Burning up, despite my reservations.
Henrietta Howel can burst into flames. Forced to reveal her power to save a friend, she’s shocked when instead of being executed, she’s invited to train as one of Her Majesty’s royal sorcerers. Thrust into the glamour of Victorian London, Henrietta is declared the chosen one, the girl who will defeat the Ancients, bloodthirsty demons terrorizing humanity. She also meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, handsome young men eager to test her power and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her. But Henrietta Howel is not the chosen one. As she plays a dangerous game of deception, she discovers that the sorcerers have their own secrets to protect. With battle looming, what does it mean to not be the one? And how much will she risk to save the city—and the one she loves?
“Knowledge is as powerful as fire. The brighter it burns, the more it devours.” – Jessica Cluess, A Shadow Bright and Burning.
After reading, I can say this about A Shadow Bright and Burning; it was a very standard piece of YA Fantasy, with all the necessary elements to make it enjoyable, however it still fell short through a lack of originality and wow factor. Honestly, nothing about this book felt fresh and new – most aspects, even the characters themselves, felt recycled and reused. Think along the lines of Infernal Devices, Grave Mercy, Icons and the like.
That being said, the characters were initially intriguing, but quickly became quite bland and their “secrets” were steadily revealed and it quickly became clear which of the young men would challenge her, would fight for her, and would betray her. Henrietta herself was rather bland, and her character quickly became utterly predictable. She begins thinking she is a witch (and could potentially be condemned to death), then, when she turns out to not be a with, instead proves to be an utterly useless sorcerer and even less likely to be the “Chosen One” as she is, in fact, not a sorcerer, but a magician, and again, in danger of being condemned to die. Her motivations, her emotions and her general whiny-ness are utterly uninspiring. Which makes everyone’s love of her and reverence of her even more cringe-worthy. Rook, her childhood friend and an Unclean (i.e. marked by the Ancients), has a ton of potential to be the most unique character in this book (on account of his strange shadow abilitiies), but Cluess makes him into a boring, love-sick boy who quickly gets pushed to the side by Henrietta’s new love interests and Henrietta’s own self-absorption. Henrietta’s other two love interests are Magnus, cocky sorcerer extraordinaire, and Blackwood, the dark and brooding fellow sorcerer (Mr. Darcy anyone?) with secrets of his own. I was initially drawn to Magnus and his character, but when I realized he had no depth of character, I quickly became disinterested in him. Like the other boys (who were just there as a sideshow), Magnus had no real story, other than a shallow background and an arranged marriage. Blackwood, at least, had secrets worth knowing, and secrets which actually built the plot and the readers’ understanding of the Ancients and their origin. For that reason, Blackwood quickly became one of my favourite characters as the book drew to a close, and he is perhaps the only reason I’ll be picking up any sequel to this book.
The story, or plot line, explored in A Shadow Bright and Burning was just as uninspiring and unoriginal as its characters. Sorcerer discovers answer to all his problems, girl becomes “Chosen One”, but then it turns out she’s not actually the “Chosen One” but actually a magician playing sorcerer to stay alive, until she inevitably gives herself away, but instead of dying, she is immediately given an opportunity to redeem herself and combat age old prejudices by saving everybody, something not even seasoned sorcerers could manage, so maybe she is the “Chosen One”. Throw in some ill-conceived romances making up a love triangle/quadrille, and you’ve basically got the book summed up and understood. Cluess didn’t do anything original here – the plot screams archetype at every “twist”.
Building upon the discussion of plot, one could not say, by the largest stretch of the imagination, that this novel was well-written. It was very clinical, yes, and hit all the points it needed to in order to maintain the illusion of “good writing”, but there was simply no depth to it. Cluess said what she said, but there was no deep meaning, no “wow” moments where her writing blew the reader away, no deep immersion in the writing because it was simply so … Basic.
Overall, this novel had great potential, but Cluess dropped the ball a bit here. A Shadow Bright and Burning was not the standout piece of literature many hoped it would be; instead, it was a very standard, unoriginal, almost sterile piece of Ya Fantasy, with uninspiring characters, a typical setting and far too many tropes and archetypes for one novel (if one is hoping to be memorable). It was not a bad read, but as I said, certainly not memorable enough to make it spectacular.