In which I review Alexa Donne’s debut novel, Brightly Burning, which is a science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre.
I have lost nearly all interest in YA, but I was so excited when I heard this book was coming out. You all probably already know this, because I’m the last to know about anything, but this is a retelling of Jane Eyre (one of my all-time favourite books) set in space. That’s right. This is sci-fi Jane Eyre. I don’t know if I have ever been more excited by a book’s premise. I actually bought this the day it became available at Barnes and Noble. I have never done that before.
Let’s start with the description:
Seventeen-year-old Stella Ainsley wants just one thing: to go somewhere—anywhere—else. Her home is a floundering spaceship that offers few prospects, having been orbiting an ice-encased Earth for two hundred years. When a private ship hires her as a governess, Stella jumps at the chance. The captain of the Rochester, nineteen-year-old Hugo Fairfax, is notorious throughout the fleet for being a moody recluse and a drunk. But with Stella he’s kind.
But the Rochester harbors secrets: Stella is certain someone is trying to kill Hugo, and the more she discovers, the more questions she has about his role in a conspiracy threatening the fleet.
Wow, that was…not the best back cover copy I’ve read. “But with Stella he’s kind” is probably the most flat sentence I have ever encountered in a book’s description. However, these things are written by the publisher, meaning we can’t blame or judge the author for them. Besides, I’m not reviewing the back cover. I’m reviewing the novel.
I think I should start out by saying that Brightly Burning is Ms. Donne’s debut novel, and I feel I should go a little easy on it for that reason. I am also biased by how much I am still in love with the premise. None of which is to say that I do not have issues with this novel.
I’m going to start with the world-building on this one, because it is a science fiction novel, and that makes the world-building an extremely important element.
All of the humans are orbiting the earth in extremely class-divided space ships because earth is undergoing an ice age. To assist us in our suspension of disbelief over such details as a fourteen year old captaining a ship, the lifespans of humans have been drastically shortened, so that at 17, Stella’s life is already half over. Given deprivations and frequent disease, the shortened lifespan does make sense.
What does not make sense is the “tabs.” These are something like tablets, and characters use them for reading and drawing. What really bothered me though, is that on my 2017 iPad, I can read and I can draw.
Well, I can’t draw, but that is my own deficiency, not my tablet’s. In this extremely technologically advanced space society from the future, there are separate tabs for reading and drawing. Even Stella’s brand new, state-of-the-art drawing tab can only draw? I get that it’s very difficult to imagine what technology will be like that far in the future, but surely it won’t regress like that? It just kept taking me out of the story, because it was so puzzling.
Back to something I liked. One of the major themes of Jane Eyre is class divisions. That is retained as a major theme in Brightly Burning, and it is used to great effect.
That’s really all I want to say without getting into spoilers.
I liked Stella most of the time. I didn’t like her as much as Jane, but I wouldn’t expect to. There were a few times where she did unbelievably stupid things that didn’t really seem in character, and I can’t get into these things without going into spoiler-town. But generally, she was a very likeable narrator and protagonist.
I wasn’t sure whether to put this in characters or world-building, but naming the protagonist “Stella” was a brilliant decision that I didn’t appreciate at first, until this quote from Hugo:
“Your parents named you Stella. Literally ‘star’ . . . I reckon they were practical, simple folk.”
It makes so much sense that “Stella” would be the “Jane” of this world; a plain, simple name that doesn’t stand out.
Speaking of Hugo Fairfax, he was all right. I think part of his problem is that he was so young—19, unless I’m mistaken—while part of what makes Rochester work is his age and experience. Obviously, being 19, some of his backstory is changed in this retelling. For example—and this isn’t really a spoiler—he is definitely not the the father to 10 year old Jessa, Stella’s pupil. Overall, he was well-written and I could see how he might be swoon-worthy for Stella. But I just couldn’t stop thinking, “You poor little child, who on earth put you in charge of a ship?!” As a result, he did not work for me in the way Rochester did.
Together, Stella and Hugo had a pretty good dynamic, and Donne does a good job of capturing much of what made the spark between Jane and Rochester so powerful.
I really can’t say much about some of the other characters without getting into spoilers, gah! Suffice it to say that I was interested in Donne’s attempts to flesh out some characters (I’m thinking of one in particular), and treat them more as three dimensional human beings than they were treated in the original novel. I have mixed feelings about the execution, but I really admire the attempt.
Also, Hanada was my favourite character. I am probably the only one who holds that opinion, but I will stand by it.
The style of this novel is clean, unobtrusive (generally—I’ll get to that) and, on the whole, unremarkable. I have a definite preference toward beautiful, poetic prose, and this novel is not that, but very few YA books are. The writing style does not get in the way of the story or slow the reader down, and I think most readers will appreciate that.
Does it Measure Up to Jane Eyre?
Of course not. It’s unfair to compare a debut YA novel written in 2018 to Charlotte Bronte’s enduring classic. For starters, Jane Eyre is much, much longer than Brightly Burning, and therefore has much more time to unfold gradually. But Brightly Burning is an absolutely wonderful retelling. It holds true to the themes, fairly true to the characters, and was obviously approached with a great deal of respect for the original novel.
If you are a fan of Jane Eyre, obviously you know some major plot-points that must be present in a retelling. But many times, these plot points were handled in such a way that, even though I had an idea what was coming, I still managed to be a little bit surprised. Donne did an excellent job of coming up with equivalents that are equal to the magnitude of each plot point, but better fit the world of her story.
So, this is a very good retelling of Jane Eyre, and impressive as a debut novel. I was excited by the idea of sci-fi Jane Eyre, and I got it. I really can’t complain.
A Miscellaneous Thought
There was one puzzling choice in this novel. There is no profanity in this book, with the exception of a rather silly made-up curse word. It came across to me as exceedingly infantile, and it kept dragging me out of the story. I think it is possible to have a language-free novel without resorting to such uncomfortable measures. That is all.
This was an impressive debut novel, with a tantalising premise that it delivered on. My issues with it are really quite minor, and I give this book a 6.5 out of ten. I definitely recommend it to Jane Eyre fans, readers who enjoy YA sci-fi, readers who enjoy YA romance, and anyone looking for a light, fast-paced summer read.
Have you had a chance to read Brightly Burning? I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments!
Finally: I want to give a shout out to Victoria, of the lovely blog Be Careful of Books. She was kind enough to nominate me for an award, but because I worry I may forget to do it, (I’m notorious when it comes to that kind of thing, and I have so many plans for posts swimming around in my brain!) I wanted to go ahead and give her a shout out now. So be sure to go check out her blog! She recently did a fascinating post on literary fiction.
Have a lovely day!