Rated Reads

A Shadow Bright and Burning (Kingdom on Fire, book 1)

by Jessica Cluess

Rated: Moderate

Henrietta, orphaned as a baby, has lived many of her 16 years at a charity school in Yorkshire. It’s not been pleasant, but it’s her life, and she’s making do. Her best friend, Rook, has been one highlight in her life, and they’ve been there for each other, even as many others have avoided Rook because of his scars — he’s considered an “Unclean” because he was wounded by the dangerous Ancient monster Korozoth but not killed. Henrietta herself has had to lie low because of her magical abilities with fire. While sorcerers are celebrated and relied upon to fight the seven Ancients and their Familiars, witches are killed and magicians are feared and not allowed to train apprentices because both a witch and a magician helped the Ancients cross over from some other place into this world. But when the sorcerer Agrippa visits her school, despite her best efforts to not reveal her ability, he discovers what Henrietta can do. What shocks her, however, is that she’s not labeled a witch and put to death — he tells her she’s a sorcerer, too, and he’s going to bring her to London to train her.

Henrietta consents to go to London but insists she won’t come into the protected city without Rook to accompany her. Agrippa agrees and allows Rook to be a servant in his household, where he is training a number of other “Incumbents,” young people from magical families who spend two years honing their crafts before they are commended by the queen and made official sorcerers. In Henrietta’s case, she is only going to be trained for two months, at which point she will be tested before the queen to see if she can be commended at the same time as the others in Agrippa’s house. It seems an impossible task, but Agrippa feels she is the chosen one from a prophecy and she will be up to it.

Henrietta faces skepticism and outright derision from other sorcerers and incumbents not just because she is a woman, but because of her low birth. She has no status and comes from a family with no magical abilities. She wants to help her queen and country fight these horrific monsters, but first she has to pass the trials and be commended. And soon into her time of training, she isn’t making any progress following the guidance of Agrippa. Her abilities don’t seem to improve with his methods.

But a magician who lives on the edges of the city wants to teach her — and he seems to know more about her and her background than even she does. And her dear Rook is experiencing some strange changes himself. Dangers around her just keep increasing, and she is afraid for her life and for Rook’s, as well as the future of her country.

A Shadow Bright and Burning drew me in right away. I wanted to know the mythology of the world of the book, a Victorian England where magic exists and horrible creatures are taking control of parts of the countryside. Where did the monsters come from? How can they be defeated? What’s Henrietta’s real background? What will be her fate? It’s a story of a young woman who potentially can do great things but who first has to prove herself just because of her class and gender. It has bits of romance and mystery. Granted, many of the parts of this book are all too familiar, but it worked for me and I enjoyed it. Now I await the next book and hope to see some answers to the questions.

Rated: Moderate. It’s close to mild. There are occasional uses of mild and moderate language. There are a number of scenes of fighting between the sorcerers and the dangerous Ancients, with some that are a bit gory. There is intimation that the headmaster of the girls school not only is strict with the girls there and beats them but may also take advantage of them. One dashing male sorcerer is known for being a ladies man and having his way with many. One scene has intense kissing between him and the main character, nearly going further but stopping.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • A Shadow Bright and Burning (Kingdom on Fire, book 1)
  • by Jessica Cluess
  • Rated: Moderate
  • Genre: Young adult
  • Reviewer: