REVIEW: Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne

Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Length: 391 pages

Release date: 1 May 2018

Amazon UK | Amazon US

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.

“I’m not a saint, so don’t make me into one.”

I’ll admit it, I’ve never quite gotten the hype for Jane Eyre. I read the original some years ago to prepare for a literature exam, and it was alright in that it didn’t bore me half to death the way Anna Karenina did, but one of the greatest novels in the English language? I could pass. As it is, I didn’t go into Brightly Burning with particularly high expectations as someone who loves its inspiration might, and you know what? I found it a pretty good read.

Alexa Donne has updated a Victorian classic to a sci-fi premise with satisfying creativity. Sure, what’s otherwise a workable futuristic space society has to be tweaked a little here and there to force it to the mould of Brontë’s setting–the book could easily have been served by, for example, referring to “tutors” rather than the archaic “governesses”–but nothing is so silly as to render the story impossible to swallow.

That said, Donne’s stringent faithfulness to Jane Eyre does in places stop Brightly Burning from reaching its full potential. The issue of taking a beloved classic and retelling it in a way that adds modern perspective while retaining the essence of the original is hardly unique to this book, but proves more clearly a problem in it than in other novels whose authors have clearer visions of what they want their added perspective to be.

Many of us have read or at least are somewhat familiar with the plot of Jane Eyre. We’re not here for a straight up reiteration of all its plot points garnished with average world-building. We want to see something new, something that speaks to why an 1847 novel about a plain young governess is still relevant today. In that sense, Donne doesn’t push the envelope enough to make Brightly Burning excellent instead of simply good. There are moments when Donne’s unique voice shines through, when we see glimpses of the original story that Brontë’s tale too frequently eclipses, but they’re too scattered to ever be synthesised into a complete statement.

The glimpses that we do get, however, are great in isolation. With nearly enough gravitas to carry the novel, Donne’s Stella Ainsley is an inspiring vision of who Jane Eyre would be in a futuristic space world. The quote up top is Stella’s, and illustrative of the backbone she has throughout. Her Rochester, renamed Hugo Fairfax, is similarly an encouraging reimagining of a romantic lead who is more than a little problematic through a modern lens. He may come off as kind of incompetent, but that’s preferable to trying and failing to make him an incredible 19-year-old Byronic hero.

Likewise, Donne’s handling of the woman in the attic–who’s spawned criticism, fascination and her own polarising novel–is one of the book’s high points. Bertha Mason is no longer a simplistic madwoman who must be locked away. Thanks to the author’s dedication to preserving most of Jane Eyre‘s plot points, her insanity isn’t removed, but at least recast in an angle that does her justice.

The conflict in the final part of the novel, which comprises the majority of Donne’s original plot, unfortunately falls flat. Possibly due to the word count constraints on a debut novel, it feels very rushed and lacks serious ramifications despite the momentous society-wide implications of such an event. It’s perhaps Brightly Burning‘s single largest missed opportunity. Given more world-building and increased engagement from its protagonist, the novel actually has a stellar (pun unintended) premise that could have been used to explore a multitude of issues regarding human behaviour. Such development would have made it a true sci-fi novel, rather than the romance in a sci-fi universe that it currently appears to be.

Brightly Burning is a fun, good novel that doesn’t require too much time or thought, but what convinces me it’s not a great read is asking myself: Could it stand without the legacy of its Jane Eyre inspiration? I can’t confidently say yes.

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