Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning



As soon as I read the name “Henrietta Howell,” I knew I was going to like this book. The novel as a whole is a lot like that name — frank, charming, and old-fashioned, with a big heart and a lot of whimsy. Oh, and there are Lovecraftian horrors. Big, angry horrors.

If you’d told me someone could mash up the flavor of Howl’s Moving Castle with Stranger Things, I’d have been skeptical, but Cluess won me over. It turns out eldritch abominations go really well with the stiff-upper-lip facade of Victorian society under siege, if you do it right. You can feel the darkness seeping into the world from the first scenes in the gloomy north of England, and it follows our heroine, Henrietta, into the heights of London society after her gift of magic is discovered. Still, it doesn’t stifle the wonder or elegance in the novel. The household of sorcerers Henrietta goes to live in has little shades of Hogwarts and Baker Street with better manners. The characters she meets there are faceted and interesting, and more so than in some books, you’re actually convinced that they have their own agendas that have nothing to do with the heroine’s journey. I look forward to seeing how they play out in future installments.

I wanted to add a paragraph about Cluess’s prose, but it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself in the best way possible. The characters and story are too dynamic to need it. Once you start reading, you’re in. No rhetorical bells and whistles required.

As a bookseller, I’m excited about this one. It’s exactly the kind of historical fantasy I want to hand off to new readers, and whims of the market permitting, this one is going to be a hit. It’s been a while since something’s come along that charms me as much as Diana Wynne Jones and scares me as much as Neil Gaiman.