Monday 26 June 2023


Book review: The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson [blog tour]

The Caraval series by Stephanie Garber is one of my all-time favourite reads; I love how it mixes the fantastical and theatrical with a gripping tale of good vs evil (with a nice dash of romance thrown in too). For that reason I thought I'd also adore the much hyped The Night Circus by Erin Morgensten, but that one wasn't for me at all. Thankfully this didn't turn me off reading circus-themed books completely, as I hate to have missed out on The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson. It is a more adult and complex story than Caraval, but it also has the same feeling of whimsy and endless possibilities that makes these books so absolutely magical. 

It's 1926 and The Ringmaster, Rin for short, tours across America with her circus of Sparks. Sparks are people who in the last decade or so started exhibiting special abilities. Nobody knows how or when exactly it started, only that some people suddenly were able to heal with their hands, multiple their bodies, or even travel through time. 

Rather than Sparks being hunted and experimented on as so many similar fiction stories tend to focus on, they're mostly left alone in this world as they're protected under The Prince Act of 1921. It allows adult Sparks to live in peace until such a time might come that society at large needs them. After all, the Great War is only just behind them, and Sparks could be a vital asset if something similar were to ever happen again. 

That isn't to say that Sparks live a carefree life; they're often looked down on and mistrusted, and children can be sold to 'The Wagon Man'. That's why many Sparks hide their abilities – sometimes in plain sight, such as in Rin's circus. But there is an evil incarnation of a Sparks circus out there, led by the Circus King; someone from Rin's past she's been running from. He's getting closer and closer, just as Rin discovers that the Great War may have only been the first of many to divide the world...

Historical fiction novels with fantastical elements are some of my favourite kinds of reads. Think The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfielt, The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale, and The Company by J.M. Varese. They're rooted in real historical events – and educational at that – while including elements of magical realism that take the story in unexpected ways. Although I normally tend to avoid books set amidst the Second World War, as they're often too distressing, I'll admit that I didn't really register anything about The First Bright Thing aside from its circus-setting before going in, which was the main reason I picked it up.

And while there is a sinister good vs evil undertone throughout – both during the sections around the world wars as well as the timeline with The Circus King – at the heart of it, this a love story. A love story between lovers but also a love story about family. Despite the difficult subject matter, it's incredibly uplifting and inspiring in that way. As it shows that no matter what is happening in the world, and what trauma someone carries with them, there are people out there that care and make you a better version of yourself. 

This novel also cleverly sprinkles the seedlings of disruption throughout its pages and gives a unique perspective on it from another time period. There's Rin seeing history unfolding ahead of time. Her timeline is still very close to that of the Great War and so she's very observant about the changes slowly infiltrating the world. And then there's us, the readers. We have our 21st century knowledge of where the seemingly small shifts in society in the 1930s will ultimately lead. It's heartbreaking knowing the inevitable, but it also adds an element of suspense at the edges of the story before the characters are even aware of the danger they're in.

The First Bright Thing is a book that does many things very well. It has stunningly imaginative concepts about magic and the endless possibilities of the circus, harrowing elements of war and PTSD, an ominous evil lurking at the edges, and heart-warming messages of inclusivity, love, and found family. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but author J.R. Dawson has beautifully woven all these different strands together to create a gripping and explosive tale of wonder and hope – even if that hope seems futile.  

The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson is published by Tor (an imprint of Pan Macmillan) and you can now buy a copy from your favourite local book shop!

Blog tour stops for The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson

This review for The First Bright Thing is a part of the official blog tour for the launch of the book. Make sure to check out the other stops too!

Disclaimer: This book was gifted to me by the publisher, but this has not impacted this honest review.

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