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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