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The First Bright Thing

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Member Reviews

The First Bright Thing is an alt-time fantasy full of found family and good vs. evil, imagined and written by J.R. Dawson. Released 13th June 2023 by Macmillan on their Tor imprint, it's 352 pages and is available in hardcover, audio, and ebook formats. Paperback format due out June 11th 2024 from the same publisher. It's worth noting that the ebook format has a handy interactive table of contents as well as interactive links and references throughout.

Based around a traveling circus setting, the performers are all magical savants with different talents. The circus is a haven for a collection of special folks; they're a steely resolute band of psychics, mutants, and savants, who collect people like them, and help change the lives of people at crossroads who need guidance.

Their forces for good are hampered at every turn by darker forces who want to (literally) own them and control them for their own malign purposes. There is a sense of creeping dread throughout with foreshadowing of an ultimate good vs. evil Armageddon type war coming in the future.

It's very well written and engaging with three dimensional characters. It's not at all derivative in plot or characters, but readers who enjoyed The Night Circus and Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore will likely enjoy this one as well.

Four stars. It would be a good choice for fans of alt-history fantasy, timeslip, and queer-friendly found family books.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.

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DNF at 62%

I tried so hard to love this book, the concept was so intriguing and I was initially drawn into the characters and the queer rep!

Unfortunately, I was bored as the plot moved extremely slowly and I found the magic system a bit hard to follow? It was difficult for me to stay engaged in a story that I expected to completely suck me in! There was something a bit off about the writing style for me as well - disjointed at times and the dialogue felt extremely stiff.

I was able to give the audio format of this book a shot as well, sometimes that works better for me but in this case it did not help at all!

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Pure magical escapism! This story centres around three women, a time-traveller, healer and seer. All wholesome, lovely characters that are focused on doing good in the world. I loved the character development and that the women try and create a safe space in a harsh world, making for a beautiful concept to read about. The topics explored are important and I think this is done well - do check trigger warnings. The pacing is slow to allow the characters to discuss and explore the negativity surrounding them. Overall a lovely book but also an important one. The magical realism is amazing throughout and kept me hooked from the very first page.

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Loved the characters, the queerness, and the concept of a "spark". Unfortunately, I had a difficult time staying engaged.

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the idea behind this book was great. the writing is terrible and very disjointed. it is heavy and dark and never gives a sense of moving away from all the problems in each character's life. It felt like Rin was always giving everyone "life lesson" lectures which was tiring. Real potential with the time travel, stop the holocaust focus, sapphic Jewish character but just seemed as if the author was forcing certain parts of the story together. more editing was needed.

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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for granting me free access to the advanced digital copy of this book, as this book has already been published, I will not share my review on Netgalley at this time.

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Perfect for fans of Addie larue. A beautiful magical realism in a circus setting. As someone who grew up in the circus I really enjoyed that aspect of the story

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The First Bright Thing is such a rich and romantic Historical Fantasy. Set in the time around the end of WWII, we follow the cast around the US as they perform their circus and seek out those who need them most, all while running from a Malevolent Ringleader from her past. As a reader we experience deep found family relationships and a diverse magical system. The carefully crafted queer relationships in this story were on par with the time period, but done so in a way that defied the societal expectations. It was a nice theme throughout.

This book truly hit soul deep for me, and gave that sense of coming home. I was enraptured from the very first chapter, quickly realizing that this was going to be so much more than just another magical circus adventure. The writing is beautiful and deeply emotional, all while gently lulling the reader to an almost trance like state. I truly hope some of you give this book a chance, it’s going to be one of my Top 5 of 2023!

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I would like to thank Tor/Forge for providing a digital copy of this novel via NetGalley. This was an interesting read. This is a story about a time traveling circus ringleader. The novel shifts effectively between time periods. We get both a story of the past and the present. Rin is trying to save everything she holds dear-- her family and circus while others try to take it from her. I loved how the novel develops the relationships between other members of the circus. Jo is a young recruit with immense potential. I loved the dynamic between her and Rin and how Rin does everything to protect her. Revelations make sense and the pacing was very good throughout the novel. The love between the protagonist and her wife was well depicted. The antagonist's motivation is a driving force that connects well to the story and the characters. This is a solid novel with decent pacing, believable revelations and well executed characters.

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Wonderful story, especially loved when Rin was reflecting on how we grow up to become who we needed when we were younger

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4 / 5 ⭐️'ˢ

“The First Bright Thing” by J.R. Dawson

📕 Edition: ARC Audiobook via @netgalley

Transported into a world where time and magic intertwine beneath the big top of the Circus of the Fantasticals. Rin, the ringmaster, and her wife, Odette, lead a troupe of extraordinary misfits, the Sparks, providing a haven of enchantment amidst the post-World War I turmoil.

Dawson's storytelling shines as threats encircle Rin's world - a looming war, a relentless past, and a rival circus with a sinister ringmaster. The novel weaves a spellbinding tale of love, resilience, and the power of the extraordinary in the face of darkness.

Overall, a captivating odyssey through time and the human spirit, leaving you spellbound from the first page to the last. Dawson's mastery of character and atmosphere creates a vivid and enchanting narrative that will linger in your mind long after the final curtain falls.

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I really wanted to give this book one star because when a thrown to the winds ending destroys the impact of a story, and leaves everything meaningless, because the author hasn't a clue how to conclude it without tossing all the rules for the magical system they've created out the window, I get seriously frustrated! After 352 pages worth of reading... that equals a huge waste of my time. Time I could have been reading another book by an author who took the time to make sure their magical rules stayed solid until the end.

While reading the first forty, or so, percent I thought this was going to be a contender for one of my top books of the year. Around sixty percent it started losing steam and then the conclusion was a convoluted steaming hot mess. It's too bad because the author has a wonderful way with words, and a solid understanding of the human condition.

I don't understand why this story wasn't made into a duology because there was a well-defined point at which there was a small conclusion. Maybe while writing a second book the author would have had time to figure out an ending which could have adhered to her magical system.

I sometimes feel sad for authors because a lot of times the faults of a story are things publishers should see and help the writer fix, or at least tell them the book is not ready for publishing, yet.

Some knit-picking... again, the F-word wasn't used as a swear until the 1940s and even then it wasn't used in general conversation, especially in front of children. The sloppy "wanna, gonna, tryna" trifecta was also not common, unless maybe if you were a 1920s gangster, or an elementary school-aged child. When writing about pre-1980s, even '90s, history authors should watch movies to see what speech and language was like at that time. Frankly, I'm tired of many authors trying to normalize obscene language in general conversation and sloppy diction.

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DNF @25%. I was really intrigued by the premise of this book. It ties two of my favorite genres/subgenres together: magical realism and WWII fiction. Sadly, I found it highly confusing and lackluster. The time jumps made it hard to follow even when I was fully engaged. I'm sure the right reader will love this book. Sadly, I'm not the right reader for this one.

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I didn't like this book as much as I had hoped to. I liked the circus, the world, the plot, but something in the writing style didn't click for me. I never connected to the characters, and ended up skipping ahead to know the ending. I will probably still recommend it to people at my library who want magical circus stories.

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This was one of those books I really wanted to DNF but pushed through in the hope there was something waiting on the other end, but unfortunately, I never found it.

The concept was so interesting but I felt the characters fell flat and were kept behind a wall of description all the time. This may be my need for dialogue-driven character development but for so many huge sections of chapters all I could think was "show don't tell."

The Circus King as the antagonist never really stood out for his motivations beyond being evil, trauma driven, and personification of good vs evil. In a world-building sense, his conclusion was so confusing for me. If he could get anyone to do anything surely he would have turned round and controlled the war so he wouldn't die?

That's not to say I missed what I think the author and other reviewers have commented upon, I just don't like to work so hard to understand the point and metaphors of a fictional story.

Redeeming points: loved how the different Sparks abilities were unique, and the sapphic relationship between Rin and Odette.

Thanks to Netgalley and Tor Books for the e-ARC!

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Full disclosure: it took me a couple of tries to get into this book, and by “tries,” I mean I only gave it a couple of pages before dismissing it for something else (and then something else and something else…I was in a bit of a slump with no patience and unrealistic expectations for amusement) but once I did I absolutely LOVED it.
Imagine, if you will, a selection of the population with possessive of particular gifts or “sparks” as they are called in the narrative. Now, these sparks are anything from time jumping, location jumping, healing, and the power of persuasion, to name a few. Some people choose to use their spark for good, and others, well, others use their power selfishly to manipulate the world around them to suit their power desires.
The story centres around a circus, a circus made up of Sparks. The circus offers a safe haven for people who need to escape the trauma created by World War One and the anxiety brewing in the world with the murmuring of World War Two. Our main character is the Ringmaster herself, Rin, who, with her spark family of circus performers, travel the country in their circus train, pitching their tent in locations where they are needed most. But the circus environment is less than ideal; even though the government (made up of non-sparks) tolerates them, Sparks are viewed as suspicious and are often victims of harassment and violence and referred to as freaks. Not only does the Ringmaster, Rin, have the responsibility of keeping her circus Sparks safe, but she is also running from her own nightmare, her abuser, the Circus Master.
On top of the fantastic plot and the intriguing characters, this book can also be considered a political narrative. If you had the power to change the past to alter the future with the intent to prevent a war, would you? To what extent would you get involved with the revelation of fate, or would you command destiny yourself? To what extent would you involve those you love in your commandeering of the future? Would you do so for their sake? Or for yours?
About midway through, I did have the ending figured out. Still, the writing was so engaging I didn’t mind the predictability.
This novel would be perfect for mentor text to teach foreshadowing, flashback, theme, characterization, and atmosphere. I would absolutely recommend this novel to high school students.

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I was really excited for this book, as I do love magic circuses, and I'm here for atmospheric settings, especially with LGBTQ representation. This started off in promising directions with various secrets floating around, and the promise of intersecting timelines.

However, I felt like overall the first 50% of this book just felt super slow. I appreciated that it was setting up so much more in the book, but there was a lot of jumping timelines without a clear understanding for the reader of why this was happening and without a very clear connection to the characters. I found myself getting invested in the characters and then the chapters would change and I was thrown off a bit.

I think that some will love this book, especially the kind of X-men energy of it, but overall I don't think it was my favorite.

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I enjoyed this book and I could not put it down. I really enjoyed the characters and the writing was really well done. It made you want to keep reading.

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It didn’t hold my attention past the first chapter, which was much to my chagrin as the description had been so enticing

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As soon as something is comparable to Night Circus, I have to have it in my hands. There was nothing way I was going to pass this up and I am so glad I had the opportunity to read it early.

The first bright thing immediately captured me and didn't let go through a single page. I was captivated with the characters, the plot, the world.

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