A Shadow Bright and Burning is a new fantasy offering set in an alternative England in something like the Regency period. In this England, seven creatures called the Ancients terrorize the country, killing people and turning other into monsters called Familiars who do their bidding. These monsters were unleashed on the world by a magician and a witch, though only the witch appears to have suffered very much for it--she was burned at the stake and other witches, who are apparently always female, are also forbidden and killed. Magic in general appears to be forbidden to women now.
The story here follows Henrietta Howel, who has magic. When she's found out by a sorcerer sent to test the girls at the school Nettie teaches at, he thinks she's the chosen one from some sort of prophecy and whisks her, and her best friend Rook, off to London. Rook is Unclean, meaning he's been marked by one of the Ancients but not turned into a Familiar. And London is a mess of ruins surrounding a bubble of warded territory where the sorcerers and wealthy families and nobility live.
While I like some of the things here, there seemed to be a lack of logic in the background here. Why do the Ancients only care about England, and not the rest of the world? What makes the English so different from the French, for example? Why are women only (generally) witches, and not magicians or sorcerers? Before two characters in this book, the last female sorcerer was apparently four hundred years before the start of the book. The pacing is strange, as well. Some things, mundane occurrences like Nettie flirting with Magnus (everyone loves Nettie, of course) are really drawn out and played up, while other things that seem more relevant to the plot, like Nettie receiving her stave, are rushed. And when Nettie seeks outside magic lessons because she's struggling with her powers, she ends up getting a lesson in something that she has already demonstrated an ability for.
But, of course, there are lots of good things here, too. The three types of magic have a lot of promise in them. While there is romance here, there's no insta-love, and while there's the potential for a love triangle it's not the be-all and end-all of Nettie's motivations. Rook is a particularly interesting character because of how his character, in relation to being Unclean, develops, and I definitely am looking forward to how he develops. And, finally, there are a lot of intrigues and dark goings-on behind the scenes that come out later and end a touch of dark menace that was otherwise lacking in the book (despite, you know, the giant monsters stalking the land) and was much needed.
There are also some great displays of prejudice in here that I hope can make readers think a bit. There's not really any racism--I don't think there are any minority characters in this book, though there are two men who, it's hinted, are homosexual--but there is classism and examples of sorcerers lording their superiority over everyone else, as well as "normal" people being biased against the Unclean. I hope that these social divisions can be played up and then broken down in future books, showing how these prejudices and divisions can be detrimental to society but how working for the betterment of everyone can be beneficial. (Real world parallels, anyone?)
I think this is a series that has a lot of potential--Nettie herself wasn't an insufferable heroine, which was great, and there are some good concepts here--but I'd like to see some more background built in so that the world makes more sense, and I'd like to see some integration of other parts of the world, too. I think there is so much untapped potential here, and I hope Cluess determines how to better use it in future books.
3.5 stars out of 5.