Review: The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson

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OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Dawson’s shorter fiction can be found in places such as F&SF, Lightspeed, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, DSF, and more. She’s worked in theatre education most of her life. In 2021, she collaborated with Institute of Holocaust Education and Circle Theatre to write “When We Go Away,” a TYA play about survivors in the Midwest. Her debut novel, THE FIRST BRIGHT THING, will be released by Tor in Summer 2023.

The First Bright Thing will be released on June 13th, 2023 by Tor Books. It is 352 pages and is available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook format.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: To the outside world, the Circus of the Fantasticals is a wondrous traveling entertainment, full of illusions and daring feats; seeing one of its performances could literally change your life. But for the performers, the Circus of the Fantasticals is a secret safe haven for Sparks – people with abilities who began appearing at the end of the Great War. The Ringmaster (Rin) travels all across America, trying to use her troupe to nudge people to change their lives for the better. But Rin’s troupe is being pursued by a darker circus, one that preys on fear and is led by the Circus King – and he won’t stop until Rin is a part of his circus.

The First Bright Thing
is a story full of love and hope for the outcasts of the world. Unfortunately, it gets a bit bogged down in too many plot lines and at times struggled to hold my attention. There were parts I genuinely enjoyed. The author does a fantastic job of portraying the bonding experience of circus life, how those who are unaccepted because of their race, because their queer or because they have strange abilities can find a home among fellow outcasts. I enjoyed watching Rin introduce Jo, a runaway teen, to this world and show her how she can use her gift to try and inspire positive change in the world.

Rin is also struggling with a dark past; as the story unfolds, we get to see her past toxic relationship with the Circus King and how much that has damaged Rin and her feelings of self-worth. This was also a storyline that I found engaging, seeing what Rin escaped from and understanding the true danger of what’s pursuing her.

But the last plot element involves time travel, and ironically stretched the believability of the book, though less from a plot point and more from a character point. Rin’s gift is the ability to jump through space and time, and one of her fellow circus performers can see various timelines, including possible futures. Together, they nudge things on a small, personal scale for individual audience members at their performances, giving them the inspiration they need to take actions that will lead them to happier lives. But on one jaunt to the future, Rin accidentally stumbles across the coming of World War II and all the atrocities it contains.

On the one hand, such a revelation provides emotional drama against the backdrop of 1926, when many of the characters have just survived what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. But the women who witness WWII then make multiple attempts to prevent WWII from happening, a naïve reaction that seemed at odds with women who have experienced the cruelty of the world and know that wars and evil don’t start simply from one thing. This was where The First Bright Thing lost me a bit. I wanted to stay rooted in 1926 and get to know more about the circus and its performers (most of whom were thinly sketched); instead, a good deal of time is spent on attempts to figure out how to rewrite history on a grand scale. I just wasn’t interested in that part of the book which unfortunately meant I enjoyed the overall story less than I think I would have otherwise.

CONCLUSION: The First Bright Thing has many wonderful things to say about loving yourself and loving others. Sadly, the tale’s dedication to the time travel element just wasn’t too my taste, though I hope others out there find meaning in its message about finding your own way to spread goodness in the world, one small act at a time.

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