A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess fantasy book reviewsA Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess 

In this Victorian-era fantasy, sixteen year old Henrietta Howel, who is now a teacher at the Brimthorn orphanage in Yorkshire where she has spent the last eleven years, has developed an ability to magically set things on fire. She believes this marks her as a witch or magician, who are imprisoned or put to death in England since a horrific event eleven years earlier, when a magician’s spell misfired and opened a portal in our world from another dimension. Through this portal entered the Seven Ancients, magical demons who have been terrorizing England ever since, killing hundreds of people with the help of their Familiars, humans who have been turned into their evil servants.

While magicians are vilified in British society as a result, sorcerers, on the other hand, are revered ― despite the fact that a sorcerer participated in the spell that released the Ancients. Additionally, the distinction between sorcerers and magicians is a rather fine one, based on certain techniques in their use of magic that have very little apparent practical effect. In any event, Henrietta fearfully hides her magical ability from Agrippa, a visiting sorcerer who has been called in to find the source of several mysterious fires … until she is forced to use her powers to save her close friend Rook, a stable boy, from being carried off by a demon’s Familiars. But when she is found out, rather than being executed or punished she is hailed as the first female sorcerer in ages, the one who, it is prophesied, will save England from the Ancients.

Henrietta is whisked away by Agrippa to study sorcery at his London home along with six handsome (of course) young men. But sorcery just isn’t working for her the way it should, and she fears, for good reason, that she’s not actually the Chosen One, but merely an illegal magician. So Henrietta enters into a dangerous deception, sneaking away from Agrippa’s school to learn magic instead from Hargrove, a London magician living in hiding. She thinks, or at least hopes, that no one will notice that she’s using magicians’ techniques rather than sorcerers’.

The promotional description for A Shadow Bright and Burning proclaims that Henrietta “meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, handsome young men eager to test her powers and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her.” Your reaction to this blurb will be a major clue as to whether this book will be your type of a fantasy or not. If you are charmed by the notion of a teenage main character being the sole female in the company of a smorgasbord of cute teenage guys, several of whom are rather interested in her, then I highly recommend this book to you. If the idea caused you to roll your eyes, then you may want to give this book a pass. The plot is as much about Henrietta’s relationships with Blackwood and Magnus, two of the sorcerer students, and with her tortured friend Rook, who has come to London as well, as it is about the larger conflict with the Ancients. Some readers will appreciate the more relationship-oriented aspects of this book, while others are likely to be disappointed.

The characters in A Shadow Bright and Burning tend to be stock characters, though a few show more depth. Some of their names are amusing, if heavy-handed, clues to their nature: The abusive Mr. Colegrind (who runs the aptly named Brimthorn School for Girls), the devious Master Palehook, the wealthy, distant (and distinctly Mr Darcy-like) Blackwood, the brave and dashing Magnus, and so forth.

Jessica Cluess creates an intriguing world in A Shadow Bright and Burning, with Lovecraftian monsters running roughshod over Victorian society, but her writing style here, although smooth, is a little simplistic for older readers. In fairness, this is being marketed for ages 12-18, and there will be many in that age group ―I think it’s safe to say they’ll be primarily girls ― who will think this is a wonderful fantasy. There are a few elements in it that make me hesitate to recommend it to younger readers in that age range, including some nightmarish violence and a passionate make-out session that threatens to wind up in bed. To Cluess’ credit, in the latter scene Henrietta acts as I think a well-brought-up Victorian girl would. As it turns out, her caution is justified, which is a nice change of pace from some of the sexually explicit YA fantasies I’ve read recently.

Henrietta and her friends learn some good life lessons, like accepting oneself and others, developing inner strength, and fighting against class prejudice. The NOT The Chosen One plot twist (which is not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the book blurb) does make Henrietta’s journey a more challenging one, and I’m interested to see how this will play out in this series. While A Shadow Bright and Burning doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger (for which I am devoutly grateful), it is rather open-ended, leaving much of the story to be resolved in the sequels. This isn’t a book for every fantasy fan, but I think it will appeal to many younger readers … as long as they’re not terrified by monsters.

Published September 20, 2016. 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 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? Exhilarating and gripping, Jessica Cluess’s spellbinding fantasy introduces a powerful, unforgettably heroine, and a world filled with magic, romance, and betrayal. Hand to fans of Libba Bray, Sarah J. Maas, and Cassandra Clare.


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.