The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson (Tor, 2023)
Review by Warner Holme: J.R. Dawson’s The First Bright Thing is a piece of grab bag historical fantasy. With a setting ranging across the first half of the 20th century, this is a volume following a long tradition of storytelling related to those with superpowers being connected directly and indirectly to metaphors for other individuals outside of what might be seen as the norm.
Some people in this world have supernatural abilities large and small that have become known as “sparks.” Their presence is decidedly a 20th century phenomena, having begun some time after The Great War. With the major leads that have these abilities including those among marginalized racial, religious, and LGBTQ groups, the fact they end up a new distrusted minority is a fairly obvious outcropping of the storytelling, even if it might be seen as a bit cliché.
The action centers around a circus made up of people with these gifts which is run by a woman calling herself Ringmaster or Rin for short. Rin is queer, outwardly confident, and has physiotemporal teleportation abilities. She recruits people with these gifts, occasionally manipulating and teleporting to do so. Their competitors, the people they are running from, are a darker circus run by the circus King. From Rin’s point of view it is noted that “The Circus King could have killed them all, if he’d wanted to” on page 208. It’s a very simple, very direct statement but in light of the other plot line it only serves as some obvious proof.
The other plot line follows a man named Edward and a womanizer named Ruth as they learn how to use their gifts and deal with one another in an obviously unhealthy relationship which builds from mild romance to marriage. The fact that this pair become the figures mentioned above is quite obvious, and become so extremely early in the book. Whether or not this is a storytelling flaw depends on if one enjoys seeing how the narratives inevitably interact, as opposed to wondering how they will do so.
One cannot help but notice the presence of an abusive Supernatural boyfriend named Edward in the book, and wonder about its relation and existence as a response to the Twilight series. In that book the abuse goes unchallenged, and really unnoticed by the author. In this story the flaws of the character with that name are very evident and a defining feature of him from a narrative point of view, treated as the abusive partner he is and something worse when given any level of situational ability to manipulate.
Themes of sex, race, religion, and tolerance are major elements. Questions of interference, often framed in the fantastical term of time travel, are looked through as well. What one can do to fix one’s own life, or the life of others and how it relates to the world at large is arguably the biggest question in the book. The interaction with questions of war, sacrifice, found family, and domestic violence only makes the material within more poignant.
While the themes of domestic and partner abuse are strong in this volume, it remains a good read that should be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. With inclusive storytelling, a novel but appropriate setting, and a multi-stranded story that helps to build character quickly the overall result is and enjoyable adventure with some real emotional weight. Curious parties should definitely check this book out, particularly if they want to read the first work by a new author.