In A Shadow Bright and Burning sixteen year-old Henrietta Howel becomes the first girl to train to become a sorcerer since Jeanne d’Arc. According to her master, Cornelius Agrippa, she is the chosen one, prophesied to save England from the Ancients, seven demons terrorizing the country. Henrietta goes to London to train under Agrippa, alongside his other students, all young men of better standing than her.
But she has to realise that she is not the chosen one, and that sorcerers have their own share of dark secrets.
My first impulse is to say “Oh my”, which I think sums the book up quite well. But since that’s not quite enough for a review, let’s start with something good, before we come to the bad things.
First of all, I thought the concept was really great. Eldritch abominations attacking Victorian England and badass sorcerers fighting them? Sign me up! In fact, I mostly picked this book up because I had just finished A Conjuring of Light and wanted to read more about London and magic, which both feature a lot in this book.
But that’s when I woke up to the harsh reality of the characters and the plot. I’ll be honest, I stared at this book for months at the book shop, but never picked it up, because the blurb didn’t really appeal to me, and I only ended up getting it because it was part of the January YA Chronicles box.
Now the setting is Victorian England, and I definitely was prepared for that, but it turned out I wasn’t quite prepared for how Victorian it felt. I started reading and it just felt like a Victorian novel. Some people might love that, but I’ve never liked Victorian literature so it was just tedious for me. Luckily the book shed that a little as the story went on, or at least it was less noticable and I could get into it.
Then there’s a serious lack of female characters in this book. I think I counted three including Henrietta. Four if you count the two small scenes with Queen Victoria. Literally everyone else, from her best friend to the villain was male. One thing that had turned me away from this book in the first place was that the blurb included the sentence ‘Her fellow trainees are handsome, young men, eager to test her power and her heart.’ because seriously? As it turned out it was both a bit of a lie and an understatement. No, not all of them flirt with her, but since there aren’t enough women it feels like most of them fall in love with her to some extend.
Which brings us to two of my least favourite things to do with romance plots: a) The good old “Oh I love you, but I don’t want to marry you!” and b) the just as nice “Men and women can’t be friends.” Do we still have to? The first is just plain disrespectful in a Victorian setting, because wow. And the second is dumb in any kind of setting. It’s the kind of logic that makes me wonder if the author ever had a guy best friend, because uh not my experience with guy best friends at all.
On the other hand at least one of the guys had great character development in my opinion. He was very stuck up in the beginning but by the end I really liked him.
It was also nice to see a bit of a twist on the “chosen one” trope, even though it was a little problematic in itself. Because somehow on top of your average Victorian classism, Cluess managed to create an inherently classist and misogynistic magic system. Sorcerers are only male apparently, and they’re better than magicians, and then there’s witches who just get burned?? I’m sorry but…no.
Add to that the fact that there was literally one character who was not from England, because being under attack from Eldritch abomination apparently means no one in Europe will help you (which is harsh even for 19th century Europe, we usually managed to build alliances against a common enemy). Obviously we couldn’t have even one non-English character in the story so off he went back home.
All in all A Shadow Bright and Burning had a lot of potential, but didn’t use it and instead decided to go with a storyline that I might have celebrated about 10 years ago, but not in 2017, which is just sad.
Rating: ★★1/2☆☆☆ (2 1/2 Stars)
Publication Date: 3 January 2017
Publisher: Random House Australia
Page Count: 416
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical Fiction
“I am Henrietta Howel. The first female sorcerer in hundreds of years. The prophesied one. Or am I?”
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 terrorising 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?
Exhilarating and gripping, Jessica Cluess’s spellbinding fantasy introduces a powerful, unforgettable heroine, and a world filled with magic, romance, and betrayal.