Member Reviews

“Family finds us, even if we’re born in different places to different homes.”

The First Bright Thing is a standalone historical-inspired fantasy. With lots of the plot taking place in a circus and a cast of magical queer characters, I knew I had to read this book.

Rin was a great character to lead the narrative and I really enjoyed slowly learning about her past through her. She was clearly traumatised and it was interesting to see how she used her Ringmaster persona to appear confident and strong for her crew whilst sharing deeper parts of herself with the ones she let in close. Edward was the other POV character and I found his storyline engaging as well, although in a very different way from Rin. Seeing the many ways in which he changed whilst also seeing his reasoning behind it was definitely an interesting aspect of the story.

I really enjoyed the fear the circus crew dealt with when it came to the Circus King — in fact, I was really intrigued by that whole storyline. At times throughout the book I felt like the time travel plot with the whole traveling around trying to change things was a bit redundant. Mainly because I felt there was enough excitement for me in the crew trying to escape the Circus King. I ended up really enjoying the time travel plot-line though. It all came together well!

It took me a while to read this book but that was not due to any boredom. It just feels like a story that needs to be experienced slowly. It’s not fast paced and full of action but a painful, yet sweet story about abuse of power, found family, magic, and queer joy. If you like your history with a dash of the fantastical, this might be the book for you!

Thanks Netgalley and Tor Books for letting me read an early copy of this book. The First Bright Thing comes out on June 13th.

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Sapphic, magical realism, circus, found family, all of this with some very serious and emotional twists.

I had to take a moment after reading this one to really think about it, but I realized in that time that ultimately, I really loved this.

Rin is the ringleader of a magical circus, a place that serves as a refuge to many misfits. Her love for this found family knows no bounds, and when everything is under attack from a man from Rin's past, she does everything possible to save her friends.

Set between WW1 and WW2, this story hits on numerous difficult topics, including xenophobia and homophobia. There is also violence and dangerous situations. Please be prepared for this.

I really wound up loving this story. The magic system was not only gorgeous but also incredibly useful. This starts off seeming like a sweet, cozy read but quickly turns very serious. However, the love in this book overwhelms anything else, and for that, this will be on my mind for a while to come.

Out June 13, 2023!

Thank you, Netgalley and Publisher, for this Arc!

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Magical realism done beautifully. It was an X-Men circus and I was obsessed every second. I saw another review that mentioned this is a fantastic Yom Kippur novel and I couldn't agree more. Can't wait for this to come out so I can tell every patron to read it.

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Rin is the Ringmaster of the Circus, filled with people with abilities. The Circus is a safe place and the main problem at the moment is someone from Rins past, they call him the Circus King, and he wants Rin back and will stop at nothing to make it happen.

I really enjoyed Rin, Mauve, and Odette. They are a fantastic trio of women doing what they can to change the world in small but impactful ways. I loved the magic, and the imagery was so good I felt like I was watching the circus and seeing it all firsthand. The main storyline involves running from the Circus King and Rin overcoming the power he has over her. We get a secondary thing happening when the women travel to the future and see the world is again at War, and they decide to try to see if they can prevent it from happening.

I loved a lot about this book, the Circus itself, the characters, the imagery, the writing, and so much more. However, throughout the book, I was waiting for this big thing to happen, the Circus King thread is taken care of but there is still this looming problem of what the women saw in the future that isn't resolved and I was left feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

I will definitely be checking out any future works by this author.

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A stunning read, perfect for fans of The Night Circus and Carval!

Set amongst the backdrop of circus tents, Ringmaster, Rin for short, steps through time to bring the enchantment and delight of her circus to those who need it most. After the World War, the circus finds itself with a competitor and with impending knowledge that there will be an even greater war on the horizon. Threats creep around every corner, will the Rin be able to escape her past and the future?

A delightfully queer and stellar read, full of magic and mystery. I really loved the magic surrounding the circus and the how both threats of past and future pressed in on the circus and Rin.

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Gosh, gosh, ✨gosh✨ this book. I swear, a single page in I was getting the warm feeling of belonging that us queers get when we find a book in which we're not just welcome but thriving.

The First Bright Thing is about... Okay.⠀

It's like the x-men formed a circus together, but just to live, right? No superheroes here only, Sparks. Just people who are different, finding a family and building joy together. It's also 1926, with WWI still a shadow looming over everything. Particularly since 1918 is when the Spark happened. Nobody knows why or what or how, but some people became Sparks.

Sparks can teleport, or see the future, or duplicate themselves, or paint illusions in the air. A buncha things.⠀

The circus Ringmaster has built with her wife is magical. It's a circus of Sparks, where difference is celebrated. But only offstage. Magic is one thing, the Sparks tolerated while they entertain, but heaven forbid Ringmaster ever kiss Odette on stage, and they all know its safer to be gone by morning.

But not all Sparks are good, and Ringmaster is running from a past she needs to make sure never catches up with her. A dark circus to match her own.

Then, there's the shadow looming ahead when Mauve (a seer) looks into the future. Another war (yeah, that one) - one which will see the Sparks conscripted to fight. ⠀

Caught between the Circus King who will never stop hunting Ringmaster, and the desperate need to protect her family, both now, and in the future, she's got a lot on her plate. She's worried her shoulders just aren't big enough. ⠀

First: I cannot stress how gorgeous & perfect & wondrous this book is. It's also so bittersweet, & oof there are some rough moments & themes. ⠀

I bloody loved it. This book is queer & Jewish & hopeful & welcoming & home. I adore it.

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Rin is the Ringmaster of a circus full of Sparks – people who, during the height of the Great War, developed special abilities. Rin herself can travel instantaneously through space and time, and she uses her power to transport her circus from town to town, showing people in need of hope a curious display of magic and wonders, and adopting stray Sparks in need of a home, like Jo, who can spin illusions, and her brother Charles, who can’t be injured. But the Circus King and his show of nightmares are out there as well, always in pursuit, and he won’t stop until he takes from Rin what he wants.

The First Bright Thing had very strong Night Circus vibes right off the bat, so much so that I worried for a second, thinking it might be too similar, but it settled into its own thing pretty quickly. The characters in this book are vivid and distinct, with Rin’s circus as a found family, which I love. The book rotates between time periods, with some scenes in the past, others in the present, and due to the time travel elements, there are scenes in the present narrative that take place in the future. It tackles some tough themes – Edward takes “controlling relationship” to a new, horrifying level – but it’s a compelling story with brilliantly drawn characters, some really beautiful relationships, a delightful found family, and a happy ending.

Representation: POC characters, LGBTQ+ characters, characters with mental illness

TW: issues of consent, alcoholism, abusive and controlling relationship, PTSD, mention of suicidal ideation, mention of child abuse, mild gore, homophobia, antisemitism

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Rin is a ringmaster who can jump through time and space. This is her “spark,” which here is kind of like an x-men mutant power (everyone basically has a different spark). Everyone is still feeling the effects of WWI and Rin plus her wife Odette and friend Mauve help bring joy to people. However, they can see another war is looming. Plus there is another nefarious circus with a ringleader coming after Rin.

I wanted to like this book so much. I loved the sparks idea and thought some storylines had promise. I just think there were too many many storylines. Like, taking in Jo and her brother, young sparks who need guidance ✅ evil circus leader hunting them ✅ trying to stop WWII from happening ❌. It was just a lot and became hard for me as a reader to follow. I wish it had been more them coping with the loss of WWI. Even if they knew another war was coming, trying to actively stop it just felt far-fetched and unnecessary to the other story lines I was enjoying.

I received my copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Expected Pub Date: June 13th, 2023

This book is like a mash up of The Greatest Showman meets X-Men meets The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue set in the backdrop of a historical fiction WW1/WW2 setting.

I was so intrigued by this premise of a circus filled with a cast of misfit characters who all have The Spark - led by Rin, the Ringmaster who can jump to different moments in time and her wife Odette, a beautiful trapeze artist who is also a healer. This is a book with LGBTQ+ themes as well how society treats people who are different than them.

Rin & Odette's found family is threatened by The Circus King - a man from Rin's past - and this was the most exciting and sinister part of the book for me featuring alternating chapters where the reader learns about their past and how they are connected!

I loved this book and thought it was a such a unique and intriguing idea and I found myself wanting to keep turning the pages to see how this would all play out and what would happen to this circus family in the end.

My only drawback - and this is a ME problem - was the heavy wartime setting. Historical fiction is not my most favorite genre and, even though it was integral to the plot and how the characters were trying to save their family (and ultimately some of humanity), I found myself losing interest during the WW1/WW2 scenes and just wanting to get back to the circus and the propulsive nature of the Rin/Circus King storyline.

Overall, I would highly recommend this - it was interesting, propulsive, well written, and featured a cast of characters that I will never forget.

"Before this, we may have been strangers. After this, we may never see one another again. But what happens tonight, we will hold together in our memory. And so we are family. The acts you will see may seem out of the limits of this world. But I assure you, this circus is as real as you and me. When we dream for something beautiful, it can be. When we wish for the impossible, the impossible can find us. If we just want it loud enough."

Thank you to Netgalley & Tor Publishing for this advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.

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I went into this expecting a fun, queer magic circus and got a devastatingly accurate portrayal of healing from abuse and wrestling with the enormity of catastrophic world events like the Holocaust. While I wish the publicity had been a bit more forthcoming about the actual contents of the book, it ended up being one of my favorite books read in 2023 so far. The emphasis on the power of choice rather than having predetermined "good" or "bad" people, especially as seen through the comparisons of Odette and Edward and their similar-but-different Sparks, really stuck with me. Reading this book felt like having a particularly cathartic therapy session.

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Amazing story about a woman who run away from a despotic husband and found a new family in a circus. Add to it a time between World Wars and magical abilities of those she invited to her show. And saphic motives. And mental health motives. And friendship, and sacrifice motives, and identity motives. I feel like Dawson combined all those themes into a perfect story that will keep you up at night. What is the most interesting here is the second point of view. Of the abuser, who in any was not even tries to explain himself from his narcissistic tendencies. I was uneasy every time I've read his chapter. There are a couple plots that intertwine with each other: the main character constantly being on the run, her ability to travel time and recognizing that there will be a second war and what she can do to prevent this. In the same time she fights her own demons and trauma from the mental abuse.

The only thing I would complain about would be the shallowness of the women closest to the protagonists. They were there to serve her more than actually having their own agency. But this is definitely something that sticks out so much it'll poke you in the eye or ear. It is there, but with fast pace action and constant movement of the scene that seems secondary.

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Historical fiction is always a bit of a hit or miss for me but I really liked this story about a magic circus and the three women who have to hide from a threat that is basically looming over their lives.
There are a lot of tough topics covered in the novel and I liked how we really got to see how they impacted the three women, especially Rin.
While I will say that the narrative sometimes dragged quite a bit, I did still enjoy my time reading the story and think the concept was quite unique.

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I have a thing for reading books based around the circus, even though the parts about animals always make me feel terrible. I didn’t have to feel that way here because nothing in this circus is traditional.

Dawson gives the reader information in pieces. I had no idea what Sparks were, and we don’t readily receive that information because it comes to us in pieces. Told in varying timelines, from Rin’s point of view, we watch her journey into becoming the Ringmaster and her journey as the Ringmaster.

There are certain aspects worth discussing because they are the reason for me giving this 4 stars, so I will put those at the end of the review as they might be a little spoilery for readers, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t discuss them.

So without spoiling things, this is a sapphic fantasy with found family, which I adore. The pacing is a little shaky at times, but it’s a debut novel, so I’m not too fussed about that. Dawson brought the Sparks and their abilities to life, and you could feel and see what the characters were going through, which is a bright spot in the book. There’s a big mashup of genres with this, which pulls the book in a few directions, but Dawson tied it all together nicely. Overall, this is a lovely read—my thanks to Tor Publishing for the advanced copy.


When I read “the night of broken glass,” I knew they were discussing Kristallnacht. And I immediately got the terrible feeling of: “Oh no, they’re going to try to go back in time to kill Hitler,” because that never works out well. NEVER. And a good portion of the book is about the need to stop the second great war from happening, and yet, the book ended without that thread being resolved, which 1. I’m glad because nothing goes right when you alter timelines in such a huge way, and 2. I’m not glad because a huge portion of the book is just ignored, making all the text around it moot. So perhaps there will be a book 2 down the road?

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The First Bright Thing by J. R. Dawson combines elements of fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, and LGBTQ+ themes to create a unique and intriguing narrative. This book was a lot darker than I had anticipated, but I really enjoyed it. The circus serves as a home for magical misfits and outcasts, highlighting the theme of finding acceptance and belonging in a world that often rejects those who are different. The presence of magic and the enchantment of the circus create awe, wonder, and examines the extraordinary within the ordinary.

This book dives into confronting and escaping one's past, as well as the repercussions of actions and choices made. This along with the ability to jump through time raises questions about the nature of time itself and the choices one can make with the limited time they have. By the circus only offering a single night of enchantment and respite, you are forced to examine the fleeting nature of happiness and the importance of cherishing the present moment.

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A magic circus in which the three women with special abilities hide from a past threat that grows closer and closer. Ringmaster-Rin can jump to different moments in time while her wife Odette is a trapeze jumper with her own special gifts. Rin and her troupe- the Circus of the Fantasticals travel and they are currently living in a world still reeling from WW1. Rin has been running from her past, from a very dangerous man who will stop at nothing to hunt her down and get her back... the powerful Circus King. But the closer he gets the more Rin will have to find a way to finally face him and destroy her past. This book was too long for what it was, for me the story kept dragging on and on, and the book could have been cut in half honestly. The story is a bit all over the place, and while I did enjoy the queer romance and the heartwarming moments between the characters, I also felt bogged down by the book and the focus on WW2 was distracting.Overall, if you like magical history stories with a bit of romance give this one a go, it might work out better for you than it did for me.

*thanks Netgalley and Tor Publishing Group, Tor Books for sending me an arc in exchange for an honest review*

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The First Bright Thing is a historical fantasy that follows circus ringleader, Rin, as she manages her circus full of magical misfits. As she tries to maintain peace and purpose among her circus family, she is also juggling several threats to her loved ones and her livelihood.

The First Bright Thing is a heartwarming novel that includes several perspectives and several timelines. When I first heard about it, it sounded like the type of novel that I would instantly be hooked into and many of the reviews served to pull me in further. Unfortunately, while some aspects of this novel really worked well and hit just right, something didn't quite come together with this one for me.

First I'll start with what worked well for me:
- The portrayal of the relationship between Ruth and Edward. This relationship and the 1916 storyline drew me in the most. I was always most invested when we returned to this timeline. I felt that the relationship was handled sensitively and the development was realistic and heartbreaking. There are some heavy themes and topics (gaslighting, emotional abuse, domestic violence, toxic relationships) and I think the author could have spent a whole book unpacking this. I would have preferred a whole story of this timeline, threat, and overarching storyline.
- The magic and powers were very intriguing and interesting.
- I liked that the novel featured a lot of diversity and inclusion. There's a found family factor to this novel, which is one of my favorite tropes.

I think the biggest drawback for me is that this novel felt a bit scattered and like it was doing too much:
- Where I struggled the most was with the WWII subplot. Initially, when the MC trio was trying to stop it, I was trying to wrap my mind around how I would feel if they were successful and the story ended with the preventing of a major piece of real history (not great). And then when the novel didn't end with this happening, I felt a bit a better, but then I just felt conflicted on why this subplot was necessary. It just felt convoluted and unnecessary and I would have liked this novel better had it just focused on the Circus King threat.
- The relationship I felt the most was between Ruth and Edward. Given that this is a novel with found family, I wish I would have felt some of the other characters and relationships more. Some of the other characters felt too surface level and their characterizations took a back seat to the many other subplots.

This was an interesting read and there were some parts of it that I loved. Had the novel been more simplified and only focused on the Circus King thread, I think I would have enjoyed this story much more. The preventing WWII subplot left me feeling conflicted and confused. That being said, I've already seen plenty of great reviews and I know this story will find a fan base.

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The First Bright Thing is a myraid of glittering light. It's a book that examines the power of love and support, of relationships who have our unconditional love and support. At the same time, Dawson isn't afraid to portray the darkness. The ways The First Bright Thing examines choices, toxic relationships, and the manipulation of power. Reading The First Bright Thing is like being entranced by a mirror ball. There's a depth of themes and characters to appreciate in the shimmering beams of light and the rich shadows.

This queer historical fantasy set with a found family in the circus and time traveling magic is glittering. There's an appreciation for the world. We can deeply empathize with the setting and their steadfast belief that WWI was the war to end all wars. But we know differently. There's something naive and heartbreaking about this when we know all that is to come. At the same time, The First Bright Thing reminds us of the power of one life. Of the ripples we can make with our moments.

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Very much an unpopular opinion among the early reviewers but wow did this not work for me. If we took the first and last 15% of this and put it together as a novella i would have enjoyed it I think. But unfortunately we spent the middle 70% focusing on a plot line of trying to stop WW2 via time travel and i was out on this plot line the minute it was mentioned. I just wasn't interested in this conceptually because i don't enjoy the idea of time travel fixing historical events. But the way it was done in this book made everyone come off as very naive which also made me have a somewhat negative perception of the characters after that. This storyline wasn't even wrapped up well either, it just kind of fizzled which made that 70% of the book just a chore to get through

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The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson is set in the period just after the first world war. Rin, and her wife Odette, run a circus that is a rare safe space for magical misfits and outcasts known as Sparks. Nobody actually knows what a spark is exactly, or why they suddenly appeared during the first world war. However at the circus they can use their sparks to gift a single night of enchantment and respite to all who step within the Big Top. But threats come at Rin and the Circus from all directions. From the threat of a war looming over the future, and in the form of another circus, one with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dark power.

I was a bit hesitant going into this, because I usually am not the biggest fan of fantasy set around the World Wars, or fiction set around that area in general, but the writing immediately hooked me. It was the perfect amount of flowery writing. I could focus on it and appreciate it, without it actually taking away from what was happening. This was a really fun and somehow, with all the dark shit going on, cozy queer found family story and I'm glad I read it.

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"The Spark Circus always arrived at the right place at the right time, even if it was just for one person who needed to see their show that night". Thank you so much to NetGalley for an ARC of this magical novel! Much like the Spark Circus this was a book that found me at precisely the right time. Reminiscent of The Night Circus and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, this book drew me in from the first page, largely due to the author's beautiful imagery. This is a story of friendship, found family and above all else, hope. I devoured every word and cannot wait to read more from this author in the future!
" The midway held the youth of smoky July evenings and the feeling of a young body rushing down a very steep hill. Something in the electric string lights hanging above, the musical chime of playful games and candy carts, brought back a safe home that everyone seemed the remember but had never been able to find. Until tonight." - JR Dawson

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