This past weekend I needed a book to get me out of my head and into a magical world, and happily I had A Shadow Bright & Burning in my Fall TBR list. I’ve been meaning to read it for quite awhile, and as the second book in the series was released, its time had finally come. I should preface this by saying I actually really liked this book. It may sound at times that I don’t, mostly because I’m going to be frank about some details. And those details make me laugh. There are so many reasons why I should not have liked this book, but somehow it worked for me. Not a five-star glowing review, but it was fun–especially toward the middle and end!
About the Book:
In a nutshell, this is a book about a chosen one who may or may not be the chosen one. Her name is Henrietta “Nettie” Howel. She’s not sure she’s the chosen one. No one else is sure. But they’re sorta maybe sure because of a prophecy and the fact that she can set herself on fire.
Set in an alternate version of Victorian England, the people of this world are plagued by the Ancients. Horrible, bloodthirsty creatures that were welcomed into their world by some ne’er well magic-doers that (perhaps accidentally) opened up a portal to their world. There are several of these evil Ancients, and they are all attacking England, Scotland, Cornwall, etc. Apparently they never go to the continent, and even so, no one on the continent will take in refugees for fear that the Ancients will follow.
Nettie, also referred to as Howel for most of the book, is discovered by a sorcerer named Agrippa who visits their town and the school that she works at because of the fires that have been set. He is specifically looking for a girl with a gift for fire. Problem is, Nettie doesn’t know this, and it’s sort of bad for women to be involved in magic because of this whole battle between sorcerers, magicians and witches. Witches are killed. Magicians are outlaws and not allowed to take in apprentices, and sorcerers are apparently the best thing since sliced bread. She gets outed and now must go train with Agrippa.
There are lots of love interests. We’ll cover that in a bit. And a school for magic. But it isn’t so much a school as it is a boarding house/mansion. Anyway, Nettie needs to figure out who she is, what she wants to be, what she CAN be, and if she can actually help in the war against the Ancients.
Part Aelin Galathynius (because of the whole fire bit), but without the badassery of being a trained assassin, naive and a bit annoying like Alina, the Sun Summoner from the Grishaverse, and part Howl–hmm, or an unknown sister of Howl–from Howl’s Moving Castle, but without the training or confidence. Needless to say, Nettie is an interesting girl. She is possibly the first female sorcerer in hundreds of years. She is kind and caring, but has a temper that literally raises flames. In true Victorian fashion, she’s a bit “cold” to others, but also (GASP!) outspoken at times. Her best friend is Rook, a boy from her childhood that was attacked by one of the Ancients, Kozoroth, and lived.
As I said above, he is a boy who lived. (Sound familiar?) Rook is basically covered in magical scars much like Harry Potter’s one lightning bolt scar. You can imagine that this may connect him to the creature that attacked him. Take from it what you will, it’s the first thing we learn about him. He and Nettie have been friends forever, and we get the feeling that he maybe is super protective of her for reasons other than friendship. Nettie insists that he come with her to London when she goes to training. If I had to describe Rook, he feels like a mixture of Mal (from Grishaverse – not my favorite, by the way) and Aspen (from the Selection – also not my favorite!)
Master Agrippa is a Dumbledore type character. He is a sorcerer that is charged with preparing a bunch of boys to be commended as sorcerers by the queen. His household is their ‘school’. He’s really odd. I never got too attached to him except near the end of the book. Basically, think of a proper wizard, and you have Master Agrippa. He discovers Henrietta and brings her to London for training and he is the one who believes in her the most.
A trainee of Agrippa. Now may be a good time to note that all the sorcerers go by their last names. They definitely have first names. I don’t remember them all. Anyway, Blackwood is the Lord of Sorrow-Fell and head of his household due to his father’s untimely death in a battle against the Ancients (his father was also a sorcerer). I feel like his is 100% inspired by Mr. Darcy, except for the fact that he also wields magic and is 16. He and Howel do not get along so well. But all that said, he seems honorable. And because he feels like Mr. Darcy, I can’t help but think he is a potential love interest.
Another trainee of Agrippa. Mr. Julian Magnus is a handful. Super charismatic, flirty and determined, he’s exactly the kind of young gentlemen in Victorian England that your mother would warn you about. But he is fun and lights up every scene he is in. Also a potential love interest. If you’re keeping score, that’s now 3 potential loves for the potential chosen one.
All the other boys
There are a few other trainees in the household, most of whom you will learn something about. They are mostly static characters, especially compared to the ones above. There is Dee, Cellini, Wolfe and Lambe…and all the others.
Hargrove is a magician (yup, one of those outlaws) who lives on the outskirts of London. A bit of a hustler, but also determined to care for several children, he recognizes Henrietta for some reason. Because of the name Jenkins, I felt like this character was also inspirted by Howl’s Moving Castle… because Jenkins is one of the names that Howl uses. Plus because of his physical description, he reminded me of one of the Witch of the Wastes henchman from the movie. Anyway. He is snarky and likable and a bit of an alcoholic.
Other characters include sorcerer masters like Agrippa including Palehook. Palehook also has several trainees. There is also Imperator Whitechurch (basically the prime minister of the magic world). There is mention of fae and fae-type creatures, including Queen Mab, but we only really meet a hobgoblin. Queen Victoria is also mentioned a bit, as, after all, they are in London for most of the book. Blackwood also has a sister, Eliza, who plays a minor role. There are servants in Agrippa’s household, most notably the maid, Lilly, that attends to Nettie. And of course there is Gwendolyn Agrippa, the daughter of Master Agrippa who we are told died of scarlet fever years ago.
All of them are listed early on, along with all their traits and preferred method of destruction, but the ones to know about in this book are Kozoroth and R’hlem. Kozoroth is a sentient but mostly mindless, angry storm of fog and darkness, plus some tentacles which make no sense. Maybe he’s a land-squid and instead of ink he has clouds?
Then there is R’hlem who is highly intelligent and often called the Skinless Man. His muscles, blood, veins and arteries are all exposed and he has one yellow eye in the center of his forehead. He reminded me of the creepy, thin devourer man from Pan’s Labyrinth. Rather haunting. But he also has a Night King-esque moment a la George R.R. Martin.
Victorian England in London. Simple enough. However, one notable difference is that there is a bubble like ward over the majority of the city to keep out the Ancients and their terrorizing Familiars. Outside of the ward, there are many people who live a tough life. They are plagued by the creatures that attack the city, trying to get to the sorcerers and rulers within. And they can’t pass through the ward because the sorcerers control all passage.
The story actually begins in a small village at a boarding school for girls where Nettie and Rook work, but it is mostly just a way to show that they have had a hard start in life.
What I Liked
I should not have liked that there are lots of love interests for this girl. But I did. I am shipping Howel with Blackwood; likely because he seems the best fit and, again, is very Mr. Darcy-like. I should not have liked all the times it reminded me of another story (see EVERY CONNECTION I made to another character in the character descriptions above). Seriously. The first 30 pages will feel so unoriginal to you if you’ve read any other book ever, that you may roll your eyes. Hard. But for some reason, I was compelled enough to keep reading and had a hard time putting the book down once I got past the obligatory intro to the world and characters.
I loved the challenges that this world presented. Aside from the looming threat of monsters, there is also the conflict between different magics, different economic classes, sexism by the boatload, underage drinking, a reasonable amount of flirting and chaste responses, and lots of intermittent action to move the story forward.
Despite myself, I enjoyed Nettie. For all her frustrating qualities, she had some perfect reactions when it really counted. She takes risks and is a fighter. A fighter in a corset, of course, but a fighter all the same.
Overall the pace of the story kept things interesting. The dream sequences, which I am not normally super fond of, worked well as an instrument to further the story in the way the author used them (you’ll see why). And as someone with a sleep disorder, some of those moments felt a little surreal and too close to home. Well played, Cluess!
What I Didn’t Like
I felt like there should be a little more character development, for sure. And yet at times the author did fill in the gaps, revealing more as the story progressed. The world building was okay, but only if you have a good sense of London in your mind’s eye already. And honestly there were a lot of words that could have been trimmed out to make the story tighter. Then again, it’s hard for me to preach word economy in a review when I’ve rambled on for 1700 words. Anyway. There are also a few times when the dialogue takes off and it isn’t always clear who is speaking; I found myself going back to count the back and forths to figure out who said what a couple of times. But mostly it was well-written.
Some of the fantasy borrowings from other tales worked well, and some left me a little cold. Once it started to take off and develop without those crutches, the story got much better.
Yes, I would recommend this book. If you like stories with magic. As I said at the start, I shouldn’t have liked this book. I would never have picked it if someone told me there was a love SQUARE, plus a “maybe” chosen one, plus a boy who lived. I just wouldn’t. But I would give A Shadow Bright & Burning a 3.5-4 on the Goodreads scale. Really enjoyable. I’m in for the series!