Burning Bright by Melissa McShane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Smoothly written and excellently edited, with an exciting and absorbing plot, this book kept me reading after I had planned to go to bed. Not without its flaws, but the strengths more than make up for it.
If Temeraire is O'Brien meets Anne McCaffrey, this is O'Brien meets Julian May, or possibly early Sherry Tepper. Rather than the dragons of Temeraire, this Napoleonic naval story has Talents, who have what amount to psychic powers: telekinesis, teleportation, telepathy, clairvoyance, empathy, and, in the case of the protagonist, the ability to control fire. In fact, she has an Extraordinary-level ability with fire, which means she can extinguish it as well as lighting it.
This is a great premise, and the author explores the fire aspect well: its pleasures, its danger, its limitations as well as its powers, and what it means for a well-brought-up young woman of the Regency period to have such an ability. In order to avoid a compelled marriage, she convinces the First Lord of the Admiralty to use her as a weapon, and that drives the rest of the plot. She must confront the realities of being in the military, including how she feels about killing enemies and about the death of friends. She must also learn to stand up for herself in a man's world, which provides a wonderful character arc, and she gets the opportunity, rare for a woman of her class and time period, to be a friend and colleague to men.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I did note some issues. These weren't, for a change, with the copy editing; that was excellent. Rather, they were details of the setting and one or two things that looked like plot holes.
The idea of the Talents is wonderful, but I didn't get a sense of any depth of history to them. How were they regarded in earlier ages? What was the relationship of religion to them? (This could easily have been explored, as the ship's chaplain was an empath, though a very bad one.) How had they changed history - and how had they not changed history, so that England was fighting the Napoleonic Wars in what should have been a very different world? (This is also one of the weaknesses of Temeraire, or any historical fantasy, for that matter, and is, I assume, why Mary Robinette Kowal made the rule that the magic in her Glamourist Histories must be weak enough not to be able to change history very much.) I also didn't get a sense of how they were used outside a military context, which they surely would have been. Given that this is early-19th-century Britain, I would expect to see an elaborate set of social conventions around the talents, with special titles, forms of address, perhaps guilds with livery and officers and symbols and ritual, gradations of talent and training, odd medieval terminology and traditions. Instead, they felt as if they'd suddenly come into existence just a few years before the story was set (which was not what we were told).
I could ignore all that, but there was also a question that kept occurring to me throughout the book: why don't the Scorchers (the fire-controllers) simply target the ships' magazines? Does their talent only work line-of-sight? This question could have been raised in order to be dismissed - but at one point the magazine is targeted. That seems like a plot hole to me.
There's a convenient coincidence, too, when the protagonist finds the pirates' base. There's only the one, so I'll reluctantly allow it, especially since there's plenty of bravery and danger going on at the time.
Just a couple more nitpicks, and I'll return to praising it. First, at one point it indirectly quotes a Rudyard Kipling poem ("Danegeld"), about a century too early, though I suppose Kipling could have been drawing on an existing saying. Second, and more importantly, there's some insistence that seeing black people in the West Indies was a strange novelty to the protagonist. It's now well established that there were plenty of black people in Britain around this period; there's at least one in Jane Austen, in fact. Possibly, as a sheltered daughter of a country family, she might not have encountered any, but they were hardly as exotic as it would seem from the way they're treated here.
Going in, I thought this would be a romance. For a very long time, it wasn't, and I finally decided it wasn't going to be - and then a romance plot did turn up near the end after all, so I can't quite decide what to call it. Military adventure fantasy with psychic powers and a (late-arriving) romance subplot, I think. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it very much, loved the main character, and want to read more in the series.
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