Member Reviews

It is truly phenomenal how much The First Thing achieves with the simple premise of "superpower circus". The constrictive horror of abuse, the painful slow recovery from it, and the threat of its return all make for a powerful story of a not okay woman trying to make the world a bit better through art. To then also tackle issues of war and bleak futures (going head first into the old question of why superheroes and sorcerers don't stop some of the horrors of history) is even more impressive. With this then tying into queer history and an attempt to reconnect with a Jewishness stolen, multilayered doesn't even cover it. Deeply emotional, carefully philosophical, utterly riveting.

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I want to start off by saying thank you to Tor and Netgalley for providing me the opportunity to read this book through an advanced copy.

The First Bright Thing, set in 1926, follows Rin and her two partners, Odette and Mauve. Together, they run a circus of Sparks, individuals with gifts or powers, to bring real magic to their circus. One of the key things that makes this circus unique is that Rin and her partners try to identify one “special guest” each performance so they can help influence their lives in a positive way. But, while running the circus, they are also running from Rin’s ex-husband and traveling through time to try and stop World War II. The story is told through chapters that alternate between the past, present, and future.

I loved the concept of this book. A queer magic circus with time travel, that sounded amazing. And I think this book did have some really strong foundational ideas. I liked the idea of the “spark” as something that recently appeared and has drastically changed the way people live. It was also interesting that the “spark” seemingly provided people with what they needed, but like all things, it was up to the person to decide to use it for good or bad. I also really enjoyed the circus as a setting and I think it makes for a really interesting backdrop.

However, I did not like this book. I really wanted to like it, I did, but I hated it. The book was at best mediocre and at worst bizarre and full of odd non-sequiturs. I found the characters themselves to be woefully underdeveloped. We have very little explanation of who the characters are or their motivations. The characters are very flat, with very little going on other than “they love and support Rin”. That is not a personality or character development. We do not even get any sort of explanation as to how Rin, Odette, and Mauve found each other. We have Rin’s past with her ex, Edward, a black gap of time, and then the circus.

The way time passed in this story was very poorly done. The way the characters spoke to each other, I thought the whole narrative was happening over the course of a few days, maybe a couple weeks. But apparently months were passing.

I also found Rin’s absolute lack of self esteem to be tedious. I understand that the character of Edward was intended to be a metaphor for anxiety and depression; and therefore those dark thoughts of self-loathing are not really her thoughts. But, oh my god, every other paragraph seemingly had to mention how Rin is useless and awful. And then there was never anything done to prove these thoughts wrong, and the characters that love Rin and tell her that these thoughts are not true do not do or say anything that proves the thoughts wrong. I love it when we acknowledge mental health, but something needed to be done to bring resolution to Rin’s mental health issues.

**WARNING, Next section contains spoilers**

The book attempts to do too much in too little space. The book is just shy of 400 pages, yet it attempts to stop World War II, stop World War I and the assassination of ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand, save orphaned children, run away from a toxic ex, and create fairly complex world building. It was too much to try, and because of this, everything was glossed over in unsatisfactory ways to the point where they are barely more than passing comments. It would have been a lot stronger if some of these elements were dropped, or if the book was expanded to give more thought to each of these elements.

However, of all of my complaints, the most egregious offense this book makes is the two chapters of the 1926 Circus King. It was an inappropriate and jarring tonal shift that did not match the book. As much as everything else was underdeveloped, it held a tone of hopefulness and determination. These two chapters were basically gore-horror that went way too far into detail to the point of being disturbing. I did not want to read or expect to read about the details of the spectacle of a total removal of a person's spine or the gushy splatter of a falling corpse. It was disgusting and upsetting. It bothered my dreams after reading it. And these two chapters beg the question, who is the intended audience for this book? The rest of the book has a very juvenile feeling to it, it seems like it is intended for a younger audience, maybe 14 year olds. However, these chapters had an R rating and would not be suitable for young teens. Especially when it does not fit the rest of the narrative. If a teenager wants to read horror and gore, that is their choice. But when someone picks up a book that is about a magic circus, it is unfair and inappropriate to subject them to the mental images these chapters created. I would never ever have expected such gruesome writing out of an otherwise wholesome if non-descript book.

It is because of the two horrific chapters that I give The First Bright Thing such a low rating. I reserve 1-star ratings exclusively for books that I do not finish, so a 2-star rating is the worst thing I give to books that I finish. If it had not been for the gore, I probably would have rated it higher. Beyond these two chapters, the book wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good; it was boring and humdrum. It also felt like it was written with an eye towards selling the rights for a TV show/movie, which cheapened it some. However, I have never been so uncomfortably jarred by such a tonal shift in a book nor have I ever been so offended by a book. I do not like gore or horror and I do not want to read it. I do not ever choose to read books that have gore and horror, and this feels like I was tricked into it. The same effect could have been achieved without getting into such gorey details.

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I loved this book. I am not normally keen on books set in a Circus, but this was so refreshingly different. There's so much love in this book, along with magic and tragedy. Some of the allegory is a little heavy handed, but in this political climate, not unwarranted. This book tried to do a lot; magical people as "other", time travel, found family, domestic violence, alternative history. At some points I wasn't sure how the author was going to get to the end, in fact I thought it might lead to a sequel or series. In the end though I found the book satisfying and so full of heart.

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This was one of my most anticipated releases pf 2023, and it did not disappoint. The world building was simple but vivid. The imagery was beautiful. I was immediately immersed in the story; I couldn’t put the book down. However, the characters felt two-dimensional at times. For such a complex plot, the characters were very simple in their motivations and actions. Fortunately, the beautiful storytelling more than makes up for this small flaw. I appreciated the Jewish representation, because I feel like it is lacking in sci-fi/fantasy literature. I love that, through books like The First Bright Thing, this amazing genre is becoming more diverse and inclusive.

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The First Bright Thing is a dark tale that is beautifully written. Dawson doesn’t fluff over the topics/social issues that most folks glaze over. If you like scifi/fantasy and not a peppy tale about found family, this is for you. A fun read that includes multiple timelines and plots. What I really liked is that sure, folks need rescuing, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a voice of what they need or want.

I got drawn in with the whole fantasy/scifi circus bit, and being from the Midwest, it was a no-brainer to read this.
Thank you NetGalley for the ARC


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I am a sucker for books about circuses, especially magic ones around the early to mid-1900s. So when I saw this book I knew I had to read it. The story definitely did not let me down! I loved the main characters and I especially enjoyed the queer representation and the Jewish representation. There were uncomfortable themes and moments in the book. There is an emotionally abusive relationship. But if you can tolerate reading about the abuse I believe the payout is worth it. Rin has such a beautiful family that she finds and creates with the circus, and the desire to do good things with their art makes you root for them. The magic elements were well done and surprised me at times. There is much in this book to be enjoyed. I highly recommend it.

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The First Bright Thing is a combination of magical realism, historical fiction, and horror—the latter of which I didn’t expect.

In this world, after one mass event, certain people developed magical abilities—Sparks. Ringmaster—aka Rin—is a Jewish woman whose Spark is moving through time. This ability is how she meets Edward, the novel’s antagonist. Both of them are very well-developed. I pitied Edward even while he perverted his own Spark, which made him a nuanced villain. To this end, the novel is clearly character-driven. Side characters, including Odette—Rin’s wife and a healer, Jo—a young girl who idolizes Rin, and more round out the cast and add hope and stability.

The plot, however, left a lot to desire. I enjoyed the individual narrative threads, from Rin, Odette, and Mauve trying to prevent World War II to Edward and Rin’s game of cat and mouse, yet they never formed a cohesive whole. I was especially disappointed by Edward’s circus. As a character, he is a terrifying force, but his circus never seemed like a genuine threat. I also wish Rin’s Jewishness had been addressed further. It crops up from time to time, and I appreciated the definition of a mitzvah (“A mitzvah is the work we are responsible for, as long as we are part of the living world…And it’s not a charity, and it’s not a special congratulations. It’s just the right thing to do”) that guides her actions, but it felt lost among the numerous other plot points.

Of course, there is plenty to admire, from the heartfelt found family to the LGBTQ+ and Jewish rep, and I would gladly read more of J.R. Dawson’s work.

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This book has it all. Magical circus? Check. Found family? Check. Diverse cast? Check. Dual timeline? Check. Catharsis? Of course. Learning to accept and feel love for yourself? Amazing. Going back in time to kill Hilter? Why not.

Listen, it's magical queer women with trauma and an unerring, tightly-held-or-else belief that everybody deserves to be happy.

Personally, my main criticism is that it does read like a first novel, in that some of the writing and pacing is noticeably clunky, but not enough to impede my enjoyment. I am absolutely looking forward to what JR Dawson puts out next.

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The end of the first world war brought with it many things, among them … magic. No one knows the reason, no one knows how it happened, but people across the world were granted the ability to change shapes, glow, grow wings and fly, or create miracles. It was called the Spark and it changed the world.

The Ringmaster’s circus is a place of wonder. A woman can change into any animal she wants; one man can turn into a dozen; a husband and wife can grow from the size of children to the size of giants. They bring joy and laughter to a world healing from pain and despair. Where they go is music and light, popcorn and dreams. Rin, the Ringmaster who jumps through time and space; her wife, Odette, the healer; and Mauve, the seer — these women change lives.

A man about to make a decision to end his life will find himself called to the circus and, for one moment, feel hope again. A young man trying to sell his brother to the circus because he cannot afford to feed him is granted a wish: to have his mother alive, again. And … it is granted. The mother lives, the brothers never need to visit the circus. From one city to the next, through rain and storm and sun, the circus changes lives.

But not all circuses are like Rin’s circus. The Circus King is stalking them. His black tents, black cars, and black train skulk through the world like a shadow, leaving pain and fear and horror in its wake. And he’s coming for Rin.

There is a large trigger warning for this book, which is a combination of magical realism and horror, and that’s the horrific mental and emotional abuse the Circus King (Edward) inflicts upon his wife, Ruth — aka, Rin, the Ringmaster. Rin’s Spark is moving through time; it’s how the two of them met, as she inadvertently saved him from the trenches during the Great War. Edward fixated on Ruth, obsessed over her. With his magical ability to mentally dominate and control people, he pushed her into a relationship and then a marriage where he gaslit her, emotionally abused her, and mentally tortured her. And, for all that this book is framed within giant circus tents, that’s very much the focus of this story.

Rin, a Jewish woman, escaped her husband, but it wasn’t easy. He had put so much self-doubt, self-loathing, and guilt upon her that she didn’t know who she was. It was her fault he told her, again and again, that people died, that her mother left her, that he suffered. She was lazy, cruel, and stupid. But he loved her. And, because he told her so, she loved him. For all that she spends much of the book free of him, with Odette and Mauve and the rest of her circus around her, Rin has never really been free of Edward. (There’s even an implication that Edward encouraged her drinking or made her an alcoholic in order to keep her more docile.)

When one of Mauve’s visions sees World War II, the concentration camps, the millions of deaths of Jewish people, homosexuals, and Sparks (and so many others), the three women decide to try to stop it. Again and again and again, going forward, going backward, trying in small ways and large to stop what they know is happening. Added into this is Jo, the young farm girl with a powerful Spark who can make illusions and who sees in Rin a hero. A woman standing up for herself, standing up for Sparks, standing up for Jo. Jo, like Edward, fixates … but hers is adoration and honest love, much as Odette’s love is honest.

Odette, Rin’s wife, is a healer with a gift similar to Edward’s, so much so Rin can’t bear to be touched by Odette’s bare hands. Odette who loves her, who holds her, who grieves each time Rin hurts herself trying to help others and yet honors Rin’s request to not use her Spark on her. For Odette, Rin isn’t the center of the world, the king pole in the tent the way she is to Edward and Jo. For Odette, Rin is her heart. Her wife. The part of her life she holds most precious, even as she allows Rin to be weak, to be flawed, to be drunk and angry and human.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. Magical people with awe inspiring powers fighting to stop a war? A circus of light versus a circus of dark? A woman breaking free from the monster who nearly broke her, finding the strength to stand up for herself in the people who loved her? I wanted that. I wanted all of that. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t linger enough on one part or the next to form a cohesive whole. The three women try to stop the war, but eventually just give up. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s inevitable. The future isn’t going to change, which somewhat undercuts the idea of their circus in which they supposedly change the future one life at a time. The good circus versus the evil one is built up and up by inference and by Rin’s horror, but it’s more of a way to explain Edward coming back into the story, and it didn’t really work for me. Edward, whose point of view (wonderfully slimy, entitled, selfish, and vile, so vile) is a force through the book, but his circus just never really does anything.

The writing is strong, the character work — especially with Rin and Edward — is so very strong. I had a clear idea of who Rin was, of which of the voices in her head were her own doubts, and which were planted there by Edward. Edward, himself, is a glorious villain. He’s every insecure and arrogant, whiny and powerful manboy who thought he deserved the woman he wanted, and deserved her love for nothing. There were moments I felt pity for him, but never a moment where he was painted with sympathy. Empathy, yes, but he deserved his fate and I thought his ending was perfect.

There’s a message in this book, and it’s one I very much appreciated:

“A mitzvah is the work we are responsible for, as long as we are part of the living world,” her mother said. “We are here to bring light to the dark. And it’s not a charity, and it’s not a special congratulations. It’s just the right thing to do.”

I just wish the book had given one of the three plot points — Rin, the oncoming war, or the circus — a stronger ending. Or that the book had a stronger focus to tie the three disparate parts of the story together a little tighter. I felt like there were so many dangling threads left ignored rather than unresolved, and I ended the book feeling a little dissatisfied with how everything came together. These are all just my opinions; every reader will bring something different to a book, and take something away from it all their own. If you do decide to pick up this book, I hope you enjoy it.

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The First Bright Thing is Dawson's first novel. It is set in Post-WWI America where Rin is a Ringmaster of a wildly unusual circus which can appear in places where railroad tracks don't run. Like most circuses it is populated with a found family of misfits, but these have a range of powers referred to as Sparks which allow them to do everything from healing any wound to traveling through time. But now a dark threat is approaching and it will test all of their powers and strength of will to turn back the darkness that looms out of Rin's past, which is slowly revealed in flashbacks. Those who enjoyed Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus or the streaming series The Nevers, will find wonder in The First Bright Thing. The novel handles Rin's experience with being abused and recovery in a respectful way, but readers who are sensitive to the issue should be aware it is a reoccurring topic throughout the novel. The novel features LGBTQ characters as well as individuals from a variety of racial backgrounds; also inclusionary is Rin's connection with her Jewish heritage, something I have rarely seen referenced or depicted in works in the Fantasy genre. I received an advanced reader copy of The First Bright Thing in order to provide an honest review.

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I first picked this up thinking "oh, magical, queer circus, sounds fun". And this book is indeed excellent, with a queer magical circus, but "fun" really is not the right word. It's passionate and haunting and beautiful. A gorgeous contemplation of the question "if you knew tomorrow was going to be horrible, what would you do today?" The villain is the story is horrible and cruel and yet we can understand him. He believes the worst of the world. So this winds up as a story and the importance of hope. Not that it can fix everything, but because it can make the days we have better. You'll find yourself rooting for the entire circus.

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I received an advanced copy via NetGalley.

I thought this was a unique and truly amazing debut for the author. The theme of a found family throughout the book is well done. I kept wondering just how the author would wrap up this story, and was so surprised by the ending and how much it hit me in the feels. Give it a chance, you’ll enjoy the book!

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An interesting found family story set in a 1920's traveling circus, Rin and her troop of "Sparks," those with differing abilities, do their best to support one another and improve the world around them.
I enjoyed the world Dawson built. A traveling circus, run by three women devoted to one another and helping the less fortunate they find along the way? Yes please. Rin and Odette were lovely. I especially enjoyed Jo and her twin brother Charles, and especially Jo's Spark. I was a little confused on their ages. I could have sworn they were mentioned as being as young as 13.. but then they were 17? They seemed to act like older teens, but the initial introduction was confusing.
Haunted by her past, and a terrifying ex, also a Spark, the Ringmaster, Rin, also has a story being told along a separate timeline. Her ex, Edward, has a terrifying power... basically giving him the ability to manipulate thoughts and minds.
Overall, I really enjoyed the idea behind "The First Bright Thing," more than the execution. Between bouncing about to prevent WWII and running from Edward, the plot felt very fragmented. Edward was really enough of an enemy, especially if there is a plan for more books. Focusing on setting up the world, their backgrounds of Rin, Odette and Mauve and the circus is alot.... throwing in two major plots made the whole story a little hard to follow and truly become immersed in.

Thank you to Netgalley for the ARC copy to review.

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I could tell by the 25% mark The First Bright Thing wasn't for me to read right now, emphasis on that point, and it's not because of the lack of descriptive world. Or the powers of these performers or Sparks in this quite literal magical circus. I think for me the problem is I loved everything going on in the book with the exception of how often the impending new war is mentioned . Not to mention the magical unknown cause and damage of World War I , the Influenza pandemic and dangerous Spark named the Circus King that brought the powered group together.

The main ones to run this circus if course the Ringmaster Rin, her wife Odette,and Maeve both of them part of a key trio for how their circus performs and takes certai actions. Each have abilities to endure and face the ominous danger ,Rin can time jump,Odette can heal by touch and Maeve can see threads of the future. The one were the ominous threat of the Circus King catches up to a place Rin's home, where she and her family are safe.
It definitely felt like a bit slow and tragic from the start and maybe that is why I could not go on with this very queer historical romance.

I'm eager to come back later on this year and find out what happens because I love this misfit group of characters and what their doing in this unique adventorous circus story later on this year. But from what I've so far its definitely solid storyline that deserves the rating I'm giving it.

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DNF @ 30%

The prose is perfectly good, the characters are lovely, and the plot seemed really interesting. However, the author took every chance they could get to remind you that, by the way this is a found family story look at precious they are to each other(!!!) in a way that really turned me off. I might return to it at some point later when I'm in the mood for an uplifting found family novel.

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I originally was drawn to this book because I had heard it described as a "sapphic, Jewish Night Circus with time travel" and while that premise brought me through the door, it really delivered so much more than that.

This book broke my heart while also giving me tremendous amounts of hope. I would also add Inception and X-Men to the comps for this book which almost had too much going on but ultimately delivered such a rich, satisfying and lovely story. I would love to read more stories set in this world of impossibility and magic.

The "present day" storyline of the novel takes place in the US in between World War I and II and follows a circus, lead by Rin, the Ringleader who has gathered together a wonderful found family of "Sparks" those who have gained some sort of ability concurrent with the onset of World War I. They are for the most part left alone, but exist in a world that could turn on them in an instant.

Rin tries to use the circus to help others but ultimately finds her own salvation in it and with her wife, Odette, another spark who works at the circus. I want to tiptoe around spoilers here because so much of the joy of this book is discovering everyone's spark and how they choose to wield it. I will say though, that one of the most effecting questions the book asks is, if you knew the future and had the ability to change it, would you?

The villain in this book, the Circus King, is one of the most insidious and terrifying villains I have ever encountered. You get the opportunity to really get in his head in this book and it is a horrifying place to be and I recommend checking the content warnings for this book because I am not normally triggered by toxic relationships but the intensity and the manipulation inherent in this one is imperative to the novel but very hard to read at times. I do think the book does side step around some of the worst implications of his powers? But sometimes what is left silent is even worse than what is said out loud.

Thank you so much to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an early copy of this book. I loved my experience reading this beautiful and haunting book and will be sure to revisit it.

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Great story with a well introduced and easy to understand magic system!! This concept could have gotten convoluted quickly but Dawson keeps the story clear and concise.

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Thank you to NetGalley, author J. R. Dawson, and Tor Publishing Group for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for my honest opinion!

Although I am not a huge fan of fantasy books, I do have a soft spot in my heart for books about magical circuses, so I was willing to give The First Bright Thing a try! I'm glad I did because I really enjoyed this read! It had a bit of everything that a reader could be looking for: whimsy, beautiful descriptions, sorrow, characters that I could root for, and more. I loved Dawson's descriptions of Rin, Mauve, and Odette's circus, as it came to life on the page. Their friendship and each of them as characters was probably the strongest part of the book; I wanted more of them in everything I read. I adored the LGBTQ+ element to the book as well, with Rin and Odette being such a lovely couple but the representation also expanding to many other characters I also appreciated the Jewish representation, as I felt it was pretty thorough. I enjoyed the flashbacks/flashforwards, which were actually used to tell the story rather than being cop outs. The biggest issue I had with the book is the reveal of "who's who" came way too late in the book for me and was obvious throughout pretty much the first mention, so I wish there would have been some more deflection there. I also thought the book didn't always explain certain things or scenes mentioned (such as when Rin flashes forward and sees Jo in the future) in enough depth, and the book could have really benefitted from diving into these things more. There were times it felt a bit repetitive/dragged on, and I think less time could have been spent in Edward's chapters. It was an overall enjoyable read though that was perfect for fans of magical realism/magic circuses, and I look forward to seeing more of what Dawson writes!

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Utterly delightful! Ringmaster, Rin to her friends, runs the Circus of the Fantasticals. The performers are known as Sparks, people with magical abilities that seemed to appear during WWI. Rin's can jump through space and time and this is her gift. As people are still reeling from WWI (although it's never named as such), Rin can feel impending doom coming at her from the past, namely The Circus King. She has also seen the coming of WWII, (again, not named), and along with her wife, Odette and her friend, Mauve, and is trying to stop it any way she can. It seems Sparks will be drafted and made to fight and Rin wants to stop this at all costs. But The Circus King comes ever closer, and with a dangerous power, threatens Rin and those closest to her. I loved the magical realism of this wonderful book. A fantastic story.

*Special thanks to NetGalley and Tor Publishing Group for this e-arc.*

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Wow. This was wonderful. One of my top reads for the year.

Fans of "The Night Circus" and "The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue" will find much to love in this mesmerizing, diverse (genderfluid, LGBTQIA+, Jewish, BIPOC characters) novel. Dawson has created a captivating world filled with richly developed characters and thought-provoking themes that will leave a truly lasting impression. This is an enchanting and emotionally resonant read that seamlessly blends historical elements, fantastical elements, and a heartfelt romance. It is a must-read for those seeking a captivating story filled with magic, love, and found family.

"The First Bright Thing" by J.R. Dawson is a captivating historical fantasy that weaves together elements of time travel, magical superpowers, and a vibrant circus setting. It is set in the time in which the world is recovering from the horrors of World War I and the tragedy of the influenza pandemic of 1918. In the wake of an unknown event during the war, there are super-powered people called Sparks, some of which have found their way into the show business of the big top.

Dawson's prose is exquisite, painting a vivid picture of the Circus of the Fantasticals and the enchanting world it inhabits. The romance between Rin and Odette is beautifully portrayed, filled with tenderness that will surely captivate readers. The exploration of themes such as family, abuse (domestic and childhood), and accepting one's humanity adds depth and emotional resonance to the narrative. The author delves into the complexities of power and choice, highlighting the consequences of desperation and the difficult choices individuals make in challenging circumstances. It has quite a bit of diversity within its pages. Even the villain of the story is sympathetic in his motivations despite the fact that his actions are incredibly chilling.

Amazing novel. Dawson is now an instant-buy author for me.

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