Member Reviews

The First Bright Thing is a beautiful story of found family and a magical circus. What starts as a fantastical world full of magic and an evil force becomes a very real story of trauma and healing.

We are transported to a world just after WWI and during the war “Sparks” were created, granting certain people magical powers. Ringmaster Rin has created a safe haven for these people in her circus and When the circus is threatened by the Circus King, Rin and her family have to decide what fights are most important to them.

There’s time travel, shapeshifting and magical healing… just to name a few powers at play. Truly a whimsical, but heartbreaking story.

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The First Bright Thing is a devastatingly gorgeous tale. It is filled with tears and heartbreak, as well as joy and triumph over evil. The First Bright Thing follows Rin as she spins a circus out of sadness and eventually is joined by her found family, including her wife Odette. But Rin has been running from something that she’s never left behind and he’s finally caught up to her. Rin and her family will need to use all of their magical powers to defeat her old enemy and find a future where they all survive…

The First Bright Thing is an excellent queer and Jewish historical fantasy. Rin can jump from moment to moment in time and does so to try and protect her family (and the world) from danger. There are vivid descriptions of World War II and some of the horrors of the Holocaust, so readers should definitely read with care. The First Bright Thing is a thoughtful, important story about how we must all choose what to do with the abilities that we have to make the world a better place.

One of my favorite parts was the sapphic relationship between Rin and Odette and how they always found each other no matter what obstacles they faced. I loved the idea behind the Sparks and how it was tied to what you needed or wished for most. I was entranced watching Edward’s descent into a villain- it is masterfully done. He was so chilling, but utterly convinced that he was always doing the right thing. I can see why it was compared to The Night Circus, particularly the magical traveling and found family.

The First Bright Thing grabbed me and I couldn’t look away until the end. I can’t wait to see what J.R. Dawson writes next! Readers who enjoy The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs), and queer found family/fantasy should check out this book.

Thank you to J.R. Dawson, Tor Books, and Netgalley for a free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

For publisher: My review will be posted on Instagram, Goodreads, Amazon, Storygraph, and Barnes & Noble etc

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I unfortunately DNFed this book at 40%. There are two main reasons I chose not to finish.

1. I was bored. I loved Edward’s perspectives and could see him turning into an excellent villain, but unfortunately he was not the focus of the story - Rin was. I found Rin to be an insufferably dull character and her POV to be hard to push myself to read.

2. This book was not marketed to me as a war book - which it is. As a Jewish reader I like to be aware when there are Holocaust references in a book (for generational trauma reasons) so I can be adequately prepared. When I found myself reading a scene in Berlin at the book burnings, I felt totally blindsided. I didn’t like the focus on war, and if I knew that was what this book was about I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place.

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Thank you to Tor Publishing and Netgalley for the ARC copy to review.

This is my first circus-centered book. If you couldn't tell from the cover or the description, yes the circus is a major part of this story. Still, I wanted to try the book about magical misfits. The pacing of the book moves the story along while still taking time to examine the emotions of situations. Somehow months took place during the course of the book when it seemed like only days to weeks.

The First Bright Things has two main characters over a split timeline. Ringmaster, Rin to her family, started her circus to give a safe haven to people like her, Sparks. Most of Rin's story is in 1926 but since her spark lets Rin jump across space and time it does skip some years. Rin tries to be strong and steady for everyone around her. She mentions putting the mask of the Ringmaster on to make sure not to worry others. I would have liked for a better character growth but what we received was realistic. I say this because Rin will constantly struggles with her inner voice. Between Rin and her young ward, there is a good view of mental health struggles. Our other main perspective will be Edward in 1916. Edward's story begins the day the Spark comes and remains largely in the past.

Rin's part of the story focuses mostly on her trying to carry the world herself. In this, she is trying to stop the war from happening. So much of the book is devoted to her thinking about saving her people or traveling to different points even when she shouldn't. The other part of Rin's story is running from the darkness of her past. This is another task she is trying to do alone. Her wife and best friend both try to help her but Rin doesn't think they understand how dangerous the Circus King really is.

The story had a lot of feeling to it. There was also a lot of build-up for events that didn't pan out. I liked the ending of the book it worked. Just how the split timeline was done and the names used it was still obvious what was going on, not sure if it was supposed to be a shock.

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I was expecting The Night Circus but got a bit of a jumbled X-Men vibe with all the time travel between WWI and WWII. This is a debut and I while it didn't hit quite right for me I will check out whatever this author writes next.

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The Night Circus meets The Last Magician meets The Diviners

High praise because these are my favorite books. I think it’s just that much more consumable than the above titles and easier to follow. The setting is cozy without the plot being predictable. The characters are lovable, and unfortunately I really do understand the antagonist.

Great summer read!

Thank you Tor and Macmillan for a galley of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. I really didn’t think I’d love this as much as I did.

TW: eating disorder, PTSD, emotional abuse, physical abuse, homophobia, institutionalization, loss of a parent

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This is a debut novel that reminds me of The Night Circus if you sprinkled some mutant action on top. The First Bright Thing is a combination of fantasy and historical fiction and is a story that is full of magic and wrought with emotion. J. R. Dawson develops a world with beautiful atmospheric quality that will transport you straight into the heart of the circus and the world of Sparks. I chose this book because a magical circus with a unique cast of characters intrigued me. I ended up getting much more than a fantastical world to lose myself in. Layered into the story is a heartbreaking tale of trauma that is caused by psychological wounds and the message of not repeating the brutality of history or letting fear control you. Additionally, the cast is a bunch of lovable but flawed characters. They are a band of misfits and outcasts looking to find their place in the world and make a family of their own. If magic, found family, circus, waring factions are in your vocabulary for books you like to read I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book once is it released.

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A circus composed of magical misfits with a variety of powers travels the Midwest delighting crowds, but at the same time the Ringmaster is trying to thwart future disasters while also being chased by her past.

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This one was fun, though I feel I had too high of expectations as it sounded similar to The Night Circus. Not something I loved but did enjoy. I like the idea of the genre blend of historical, fantasy, and romance (particularly queer romance) all with a dash of found family.

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3.5 stars
This book is beautifully written and puts a new spin on the circus novel. The characters were fascinating and I especially loved the dynamic between Rin, Odette, and Mauve. Incorporating magic, time travel and real world horrors added an interesting historical element to the novel though the ending is pretty ambiguous on what actually happens.

The First Bright Thing tells the story of Ringmaster (also known as Rin) and her circus of queer, magical misfits making their way across the united states in the mid-1920s. Her circus crew is made of Sparks people who have a range magical abilities: anything from being able to move through time or tell the future to creating illusions or turning themselves into a menagerie of animals. However, there is room for people to use their spark for evil and Rin knows that all too well. She and her found family are trying to outrun the Circus King a cruel figure from Rin's past. Also adding to the story is that something big and bad is coming in the next two decades and Rin aided by wife Odette and future-seeing Mauve must try to stop it. The novel is told in the third person and alternates perspectives. There is a pretty big twist though it's easy to figure out but I won't spoil that.

Overall I did enjoy this book though I wished some of the side characters were more fleshed out. While we get an in-depth look into Rin's life as well as a few other characters I would have loved to know more about Odette, Also some parts of the book (despite the time travel and magic element) felt too modern and I wasn't sure what Dawson was going for.

I would recommend for fans of fantasy, circus novels, found families or anyone who likes a combo of all three!

I was provided a free copy of this book through NetGalley

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I don't normally go for circus themed or sideshow books but I loved the aesthetic of this, and the queer inclusivity. I hopeto see it continued and I loved the prose despite being hesitant about the setting trope!

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This one just isn't doing it for me. I can't keep track of anything bc I'm not interested in anything that's happening. A book about a time travelling circus should be way more interesting than whatever this is. Not to mention the very first paragraph reads almost exactly like a rip-off of Night Circus. I love that book, and I was hopeful for this one, but it just isn't working. DNF.

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The First Bright Thing was such a unique, beautiful read! Ringmaster—Rin—can jump through time and with her wife Odette and her friends, she is determined to make the world a more beautiful place with her Circus of the Fantasticals. But there are threats coming from the future and the past that could change the world forever. There is a lot happening in this atmospheric, emotional read and it is powerful and hopeful, and haunting and magical . It was different—whimsical, throwing you right into the circus, and dark, as you travel through the threats of war and the threats of the Circus King who has been hunting Rin. The writing is lyrical and the found family elements were stunning. I loved these characters as they push and love each other and search how to build a better world. The magic too was fascinating and engaging. The two timelines worked so well together. It handled grief, gaslighting, and depression, while also shining a light on finding a family to call your own and the power that can bring. It’s striking and original and imaginative and I couldn’t put it down,

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This was an absolute joy of a book! The premise alone was enough to draw me in, and I was ecstatic when I was approved to read an egalley of this book. I've tried circus-based fantastical stories before that have let me down, and I'm thrilled that was not the case with The First Bright Thing - I loved it.

Rin and her circus troupe travel the midwest, bringing joy, enchantment, and respite to their guests. But their found home is being threatened by an impending war and a malevolent ringmaster and his circus with his sights set on Rin.

This is a story about a circus, but its also a story about found family, trauma, mental health, addiction, growth, hope, and learning to live in the moment. It crosses genres by combining fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, and romance into one enchanting story. Getting to see so much of the circus in action is magical and makes you feel like a kid, but its balanced out by some heavy content (especially Rin and the Circus King's relationship, and the Circus King's circus) and some heartwarming moments. Some of the focus on WWII was a bit distracting at times, because once that storyline had closed I found myself devouring the rest of the story. The characters were endearing and sweet, but also flawed, and I enjoyed how they were each shown in all lights - it made them more relatable. If you're looking for a story that combines found family, history, the circus, and magic, this is the one for you.

Thank you to the teams at Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the egalley of The First Bring Thing!

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The First Bright Thing is one of those books that you know is going to change your life just from reading the first sentence. I immediately fell in love with Dawson's prose. It flows and winds elegantly throughout the entire story, rich with color and feeling. I was also entranced by the story itself. As Rin, a well-rounded protagonist filled with meaningful flaws and characteristics, faces her past, she is joined by a cast of many characters that jump right into your heart, from Odette, Mauve, and feisty Jo. Having the perspective of the antagonist was also a really powerful choice. As the story folds out from his and Rin's perspectives, the story comes together to a heated conclusion worthy of the circus performers they all are. If I had Rin's Spark, I would go back in time to read this book for the first time again!

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fun and exciting! to a point.

- thanks to netgalley & the publisher for providing me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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The Night Circus is one of my favorite books and I will never not get excited about a new magical historical fiction circus book. I went in with big expectations but unfortunately this story fell a bit flat for me. When I saw another reviewer describe this as X-Men meets The Night Circus, I thought I was for sure guaranteed a fun read. By no means is this a bad book, I just never felt invested in the story or the characters and I was honestly really relieved once I finally finished it. My opinion is definitely in the minority though and I think this book will have its own audience that loves it! My favorite part was the found family aspect and the sapphic romance; the representation in general was incredibly well done. I think Dawson has a promising writing style that is full of emotion and I will be seeking out her future books with hopes they work out better for me, especially since Tor is one of my favorite publishers.

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REVIEW: ✪✪✪✪
Let me preface this review by thanking NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an
advanced copy of this fantastic book!
I have to say this book ended up being so much more than I gave it credit for while I first started reading it. The beautiful writing was undeniable from the first page. I highlighted so many gorgeous passages, which I think made the book painfully relatable as well as stirring. Yet the beginning threw me off a bit. It felt like I was being thrown in at the middle of a story I wasn't supposed to be a part of. This isn't the first book that does this “fully thrown in the middle of things” type of start, but I’m not sure this one pulled it off.
However, the way the narrative progressed greatly compensated it. The skill and artistry with which the author tackled the themes she wanted to deal with was awe-inspiring. Just as she weaved Judaism into the very core aspects of the story, how in the end Teshuvah and Rin’s spark and journey are one and the same, and were always supposed to go hand in hand.
Moreover, topics like domestic violence, substance abuse, homophobia and war, as well as many others, were treated with the required gentleness. They neither felt rushed nor swiped under the rug. The approach of these is mature and serious enough, but never extremely graphic nor triggering.
I suppose my only grip with this book is that maybe it was too much to handle? Having not only the war, not only the main villain, but also all the internal struggles and the complicated family dynamics and the other POV and the kids... It was a tiny bit overbearing. It didn't read badly, but I would've much preferred if it just focused on the war OR the Circus King OR Rin’s circus.
In conclusion, I couldn’t recommend this book more, all the way from the beautiful writing and the fantastic Sparks to the dearest cast, it will leave you with a little beat of a heartbreak, however it will be worth it, for all the things in between, and all the things the future promises.

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"If you knew how dark tomorrow would be, what would you do with today?

Ringmaster - Rin, to those who know her best - can jump to different moments in time as easily as her wife, Odette, soars from bar to bar on the trapeze. And the circus they lead is a rare home and safe haven for magical misfits and outcasts, known as Sparks.

With the world still reeling from World War I, Rin and her troupe - the Circus of the Fantasticals - travel the Midwest, offering a single night of enchantment and respite to all who step into their Big Top.

But threats come at Rin from all sides. The future holds an impending war that the Sparks can see barrelling toward their show and everyone in it. And Rin's past creeps closer every day, a malevolent shadow she can't fully escape.

It takes the form of another circus, with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dangerous power. Rin's circus has something he wants, and he won't stop until it's his."

Who doesn't want to read about rival circuses?

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Magical circus! Queer characters! Time travel! Historical setting! Creepy villain! Found family! Ahhh there’s so much to love in this book!

I enjoyed the unique story that kept me guessing and wanting to read on. The lyrical prose was gorgeous and wrapped you up as a reader. I loved how the characters were so well developed and you wanted to root for them.

My favorite part was the Circus King plot. He was just such a wicked and fascinating villain. I absolutely loved the ending and how it all came together for a good ending.

My only small complaint was that the pacing moved rather slow, but it wasn’t enough to make me out it down.

Overall, highly recommend!

Full review on TikTok:

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