Can I squeal? Okay, I’m gonna take a second to squeal because…OHMYFREAKINGGODILOVELOVELOVEDTHISBOOKY’ALL!!! Let me just say that as of right now, Jessica Cluess very well might be my favorite 2016 YA debut author so far! And let me also just make a side note since ’tis the season and all: if you’re looking for a good Halloween read that fits the seasonal mood but isn’t super scary, then look no further because Jessica Cluess has got you covered! Oh my gosh! Where do I begin? There were three things about A Shadow Bright And Burning that I really loved and those are: the characters, the plot, and the themes (not necessarily in that order).
Let me start out out with the lovely darlings who are our characters, beginning with none other than Miss Henrietta Howl, the main character. I adored Henrietta! I personally related to her very much. She’s down to earth and compassionate but she has a stubborn streak, a fiery temper, and quite a vulnerable side. I love that Cluess showed us so many facets of Henrietta; it made her seem so real and true. And then there’s the boys! Each of the was such a character, so unique! The main two we get to know are the flirtatious Magnus and the brooding Blackthorn. Magnus befriends and flirts with Henrietta while Blackthorn is not exactly Henrietta’s enemy, but certainly isn’t her friend. Each is a great character in their own right and I definitely want to know more about them.
I loved that while this book does have a hint of romance, it mainly emphasizes male-female friendships, which I think we don’t see enough of in YA. Henrietta’s newfound friends are loyal and loving and had a great dynamic with her. I loved the teasing and banter between Henrietta and the boys and how they kind of became a sort of new family to her.
But it wasn’t just the characters that were great–the plot was awesome too! Fast paced and action packed, the plot just sucks you in and moves you along quickly. Tropes were turned topsy-turvy, leading to me never being able to trust my first impressions. It became a fun game to try to guess what would happen next. There honestly was never a dull moment.
By far my favorite thing about this A Shadow Bright And Burning, though, were the feminist and anti-discrimination messages and themes threaded through the book! Victorian England is already an incredibly patriarchal setting and on top of that, Henrietta is one of the only female sorcerers in the history of this world and because of that she’s constantly asked to prove herself to this society. Henrietta fights against these anti-women sentiments at every turn, proving herself over and over on a personal and professional level. In addition, this book talks a lot about socioeconomic discrimination, which I was so glad to see because that topic isn’t discussed much in YA, let alone in YA fantasy! Henrietta comes from a girls school and is lower middle class and her best friend Rook is a servant, meaning he is essentially poor. This leads to them being looked down on. In one section of the book, Henrietta gets into a fight with Blackthorn about this, arguing with him that the poor are not less than the wealthy simply because they are poor and that when you are wealthy and in a position of privilege in society, it is your responsibility to take care of the poor and those less fortunate than you. There are also anti racial discrimination themes woven into the mix, as Henrietta witnesses how different magical “races” are discriminated against and the injustice of such racial discrimination. I was so happy to read a fantasy book which was so open and forward about its anti discrimination messages as I think we need more of that in YA. A Shadow Bright and Burning is a brilliant example of how to perfectly weave such themes into a YA fantasy story without being preachy and overtaking the story.
As for the audiobook format, I enjoyed it very much! Fiona Hardingham is one of my favorite narrators and has one of the most musical voices I’ve ever heard. In addition, her pacing is steady and even and her emotion would please even Goldilocks as it’s not too much and not too little, but just right! I would definitely recommend listening to the audiobook o A Shadow Bright And Burning as it was totally A+!
So that’s it! I think it’s pretty obvious that I really enjoyed this book all in all! Cluess has certainly made a brilliant debut and I can’t wait to see what more she has in store!