Twenty-one year old Elinor Pembroke, dreaming of fire burning all around her, awakes to find her room actually ablaze with an intense fire ― a fire she caused in her sleep. Elinor is able to quench the fire with simply a thought. The ability to not only mentally generate but also to extinguish fire makes her an Extraordinary Scorcher, the first British person with this high level of power over fire in over a hundred years. In this alternative Regency world, a few people have magical talents ― telepathy, flying, teleporting, visions, and more ― and those who have especially strong abilities are called Extraordinaries.
Elinor’s dictatorial father is delighted that his nondescript middle daughter is suddenly an extremely valuable commodity in the marriage market: many men are interested in marrying a woman with a strong talent in order to produce gifted children. Elinor’s personal feelings about the man her father chooses for her are of no account to him. As he’s busily making plans to marry her off to a rather unpleasant but wealthy nobleman, Elinor, desperate to find a path that offers her the right to determine her own fate, sneaks off to convince the Admiralty that the Royal Navy needs her help.
The admirals are reluctant to allow a woman to serve in the Navy, but it’s difficult for them to argue with Elinor’s ability, particularly after she gives them a brief demonstration of her Extraordinary talent by calmly lighting the fireplace and every lamp in the First Lord’s office at once, then extinguishing them. It’s clear that Elinor could make a big difference in their battles against pirates and privateers, which are splitting their naval forces in the war against Napoleon. To her embarrassment, they assign her to the ship of Captain Miles Ramsay, with whom Elinor had had a bit of a tiff at a recent ball. Sparks fly, in more ways than one. Elinor has to battle, not only privateers and pirates, but the superstitions and prejudices of the sailors aboard the Athena, as well as the admiral in Bermuda who is in charge of the conflict against the pirates in the Caribbean.
Burning Bright (2016) is an engaging story about the adventures of a young woman who finds she has an unexpected talent, and in gaining skill and confidence in her talent, gradually gains confidence in herself as well. Elinor realizes that she may be irrevocably damaging her reputation in society by joining the Navy as a single woman aboard a ship of men, but the chance to make her own decisions is worth the risk. But even after Elinor finds the courage to join the Navy, her determination to face down her tyrannical father and tell him that she’s leaving is short-lived: she ends up leaving him a letter and disappearing in the morning. Her development of mental and emotional strength takes some time.
While Regency era-based fantasies have become fairly popular, this one, refreshingly, focuses more on the nautical experience than the parlors and ballrooms and romance. Melissa McShane has researched the details of shipboard life in this era and incorporated them into her story in a way that doesn’t drag down the pace of the story. In fact, the overall pace, after a bit of a slow build-up, moves along briskly as Elinor has some unexpected adventures and makes some enemies as well as some friends. The secondary characters are well-developed; I enjoyed the various personalities of the sailors on board the Athena. Captain Ramsay is a capable leader but has some human flaws as well. His dialogue with Elinor is often quite amusing:
“I could order you, as your commanding officer, to tell me.”
“You could, Captain, but I would disobey, you would have to order me flogged, the crew would all mutiny, and you would end your days marooned on some tiny Caribbean island eating nothing but raw breadfruit and unripe coconuts.”
“Raw breadfruit is indigestible.”
“Then coconuts it will have to be.”
There are some darker parts to Burning Bright as well, as McShane deals straightforwardly with the nightmarish psychological effects of killing men in war, as well as the seductive power that fire can gain over the person that wields it. These aspects are reminiscent of some of the ideas and themes explored in Shannon Hale’s fantasy Enna Burning, though I didn’t find Burning Bright nearly as dark and disturbing as that fire-based fantasy.
Burning Bright combines shipboard adventures, wars with pirates, and an interesting magical system with just a little romance. I didn’t really mean to spend an entire evening reading this book, but it was one of those books that was extremely difficult to put down once I got into it!