Book Review

Burning Bright by Melissa McShane

TW: violence, death from burning, both explicit and implicit threats of sexual assault, ego and stupidity

Where has this book been all my life? Burning Bright takes place in a slightly alternate Regency England in which some people are born with special abilities, called talents. If you ever wanted to read a feminist story about superheroes on Royal Navy ships fighting pirates then rejoice, for this is your lucky day.

When Elinor discovers that she is an Extraordinary (someone with not only special abilities but particularly strong ones with unique variations) who can light and extinguish fires through her force of will, her father is thrilled. He plans to force her into an advantageous marriage, one that will produce even more powerful children. Forced to choose between this marriage and being a dependent in her sister’s home for the rest of her life, Elinor selects a third option and offers her services to the Royal Navy. As the only Extraordinary Scorcher in England, Elinor is too valuable an asset for even the exclusively male Navy leadership to turn away.

Elinor struggles to adapt to life at sea on the Athena, and to win the respect of the men. Whenever she starts to make progress, another plot twist forces her to start all over. Luckily, she has the snarky Captain Ramsay’s support through battles, deserted islands, and the ego-fueled politics that rule naval decisions. Gradually they become close friends, linked by a similar sense of humor and by their disdain of the ego wars that seem, in Navy leadership, to take precedence over the war on the pirates. Honestly, you guys, the men in power act as though the entire ocean is high school and they are all vying for Homecoming King.

The world-building in this book is beautifully done with exposition either completely skipped so the reader picks up things from context or delivered naturally. If you want more information than is in the main text, there’s an afterword that explains all of the talents in detail. The talents (Mover, Shaper, Scorcher, Bounder, Seer, Speaker, Discerner, Coercer) are woven into the Regency world seamlessly. Meanwhile, the mundane world is rendered in gorgeous descriptions of locations including a London ballroom and a deserted island in the Caribbean Sea.

Beware, for the pretty descriptions of pretty things are equally matched by well-done but graphic descriptions of horrible things. Elinor’s job is to set enemy ships on fire, and she’s amazingly good at it. There are battles in which awful things happen and nice people die or incur horrible injuries. The book takes some time to explore the deadly aspect of Elinor’s art and the trauma of killing and of nearly being killed. The battles are both exciting and horrifying.

The fantasy and action aspect of this book works better than the romance. I enjoyed Elinor and Ramsay together. However, because everything is from Elinor’s point of view (in third-person) the reader never gets to know Ramsay very well. I liked how at ease these two people became with one another, but because there was very little romantic or sexual chemistry between them I believed in their friendship more than I believed in their romance. There’s no sex in this book beyond kissing, which I personally don’t mind at all. But despite having a lengthy relationship, the shift from friends to lovers (emotionally and physically) seemed sudden without much development behind it.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely. It was lavish, it was exciting, it had magic and pirates and politics, and all of the characters were entertaining and interesting with the exception of two villains that were so purely self-centered that I just wanted to slap them all the time. Regency fans and fantasy fans will love this!


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Burning Bright by Melissa McShane

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  1. SandyH says:

    This whole series looks very interesting and this first book is only .99 on Kindle. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Emily Carter says:

    The review is giving me vibes of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories if you substitute supernatural for magical powers. At .99 I’m excited to check it out.

  3. Jodi says:

    @SandyH, darn you. 🙂

    I was intrigued, but only 99 cents sealed the deal!

  4. Jazzlet says:

    Oooooh 77p in the UK 🙂

  5. LisaM says:

    Also on sale for Nook. I one-clicked! Patrick O’Brian and Naomi Novik have written about the terrors of fire on wooden ships in this period as well – though only one has dragons setting things on fire.

  6. Lisa F says:


  7. RIGHT THEN off to Kobo to buy this, because this sounds like fun! As a fan of both Patrick O’Brian and Naomi Novik, I’m all over Napoleon-era adventure with fantasy elements. 😀

  8. Karin says:

    Ooohh, this looks like something I could read, some fantasy but in a historical world setting. Like Emily Larkin or the Glamourist Histories but with a lot more action.

  9. alex says:

    I enjoyed this book, but find that I’m having an increasingly difficult time getting behind the British Military as a Force of Good trope. The author made up a pirate conflict where the pirates are very bad in part to get around this… but, in the end, ensuring safe trade in the Caribbean in the 19th century is far from the noble goal it’s made out to be.

  10. Laura George says:

    @alex — I agree completely. I looked at the series as a whole and got worried about a novel set in India. The blurb for that one certainly created the impression that the British Military would be represented as Good. Ick. I haven’t read the book itself, though, so it’s hard to say for sure.

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