Title: Burning Bright
Author: Melissa McShane
Published by: Curiosity Quills Press
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Purchased
Content Warning: Death, manipulative parents, sexual harassment
“In 1812, Elinor Pembroke wakes to find her bedchamber in flames—and extinguishes them with a thought. At 21, she is old to manifest magical talent, but the evidence is unmistakable: she not only has the ability to start fires, but the far more powerful ability to control and extinguish them. She is an Extraordinary, and the only one in England capable of wielding fire in over one hundred years.
As an Extraordinary, she is respected and feared, but to her father, she represents power and prestige for himself. Mr. Pembroke, having spent his life studying magic, is determined to control Elinor and her talent by forcing her to marry where he chooses, a marriage that will produce even more powerful offspring. Trapped between the choices of a loveless marriage or living penniless and dependent on her parents, Elinor takes a third path: she defies tradition and society to join the Royal Navy.
Assigned to serve under Captain Miles Ramsay aboard the frigate Athena, she turns her fiery talent on England’s enemies, French privateers and vicious pirates preying on English ships in the Caribbean. At first feared by her shipmates, a growing number of victories make her truly part of Athena’s crew and bring her joy in her fire. But as her power grows and changes in unexpected ways, Elinor’s ability to control it is challenged. She may have the power to destroy her enemies utterly—but could it be at the cost of her own life?” (Source)
I’d picked this one up a while ago and had forgotten about it, but after reading a review for it on reddit, I would up reading it in a day. Burning Bright is a fun, light read that’s action-packed with adventure.
I really enjoyed this book, it’s delightful. It’s the usual fantasy of manners but with a twist. Young woman in wealthy family goes to London to find a husband. Only she’s an extraordinary scorcher and instead runs away to join the navy and fight pirates in the Caribbean with her magic. I particularly loved how the tone of fantasy of manners continued ever after they went to sea, as a young woman with only her reputation had a lot to lose while living on a navy ship with hundreds of men who share a different class status than her. If you’re looking for a historical fantasy with all the manners and romance of the Napoleonic era, but also packed with the action of fighting pirates and setting ships on fire, then this book is for you.
My main problem with the book is that none of the characters really engaged with British colonialism in the Caribbean beyond a “we’re here to do our duty”. I’m not even sure it was explained why the British were in the Caribbean in the first place, but just expected to be understood. Sure, fighting pirates is important if you want to keep your empire together, but European colonization of the Caribbean was not a happy time in colonial history. The plantations on the islands were brutal places to live and work and none of this is addressed in the book or even mentioned. The Napoleonic era is around the end timeframe of slave uprisings across the islands that had been happening for about 200 years already.
There are people of colour mentioned in the book but they’re slaves in the British navy buildings and are not given names or any relevance to the plot other than serving as background dressing for the scene. Elinor was such a cool character that was very much against the injustice of being married against her will that I was hoping she’d have a more intersectional approach to her understanding of the world. But I unfortunately found the book lacking in that regard. Since this is the first book in what appears to be an eight book series, I’m hoping maybe this subject will be something the author will explore in the future. The history of the British Empire has never been solely white and I’m hoping that women of colour will be featured later in this series as protagonists, not merely side and background characters.