Published May 1st 2018 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Format read: ARC via publisher
But no one warned Stella that the ship seems to be haunted, nor that it may be involved in a conspiracy that could topple the entire interstellar fleet. Surrounded by mysteries, Stella finds her equal in the brooding but kind nineteen-year-old Captain Hugo. When several attempts on his life spark more questions than answers, and the beautiful Bianca Ingram appears at Hugo’s request, his unpredictable behavior causes Stella’s suspicions to mount. Without knowing who to trust, Stella must decide whether to follow her head or her heart.
Alexa Donne’s lush and enthralling reimagining of the classic Jane Eyre, set among the stars, will seduce and beguile you.
Seriously, how can you resist a set-up like that? It’s probably no wonder that out of the many, many 2018 debuts fellow book bloggers have been buzzing about, debut author Alexa Donne’s Brightly Burning ranked high on many a list.
Donne does a fine job paying tribute to the source material, writing a tightly-woven story about 17-year-old Stella Ainsley, a struggling engineer living on one of the least well-off ships in a space fleet circling the earth, as they wait out a new ice age. Stella lives a decent life, but aspires to more - which comes in the form of an invitation from the ship The Rochester, who is looking for a new governess. While The Rochester offers Stella opportunities she never dreamed of, including access to libraries and food she rarely ever sees, there are obvious secrets, which begin to reveal themselves in the form of isolated floors, creepy shipmates and screams in the night....
Brightly Burning excels, largely because Donne is willing to play with the source material. Whereas some adaptations like to focus on checking off boxes to make sure each line, character and scenario are adapted, Donne is willing to play fast and loose with the rules sometimes, including some cheeky nods to the Brontë sisters. It helps Stella’s story stand on its own, wand gives it a little more gravitas. The biggest changes come in the form of villains and character motivations, which - if I can be allowed a bit of literary freedom - actually improves on some of the problems w/in the original novel.
Donne also has some sound futurist skills; the space-based foundation she's envisioned for Stella is obviously built from our current reality, and she does a nice job of establishing some socio-economic boundaries for what we see in the book, with clear paths on how they could have potentially evolved to that point.
My one quibble with Brightly Burning - (spoilers ahead) - is Donne doesn’t set up the strongest foundation for explaining the need for the virus. The obvious assumption is a fear of resource scarcity, and the need to take out people from the fleet, so the strongest (re: richest) have a chance to survive. But it’s not overtly clear in the ARC version, so readers are sort of left to infer.
Additionally, there are some questions about the ability of the fleet to plan long-term. I could have missed some details during my first read so I’ll gladly reread, but it seems like the fleet didn’t exactly have a plan for staying up in space. There doesn’t appear to be consistent (e.g. annual) testing of the surface temperatures on the ground to see if conditions have changed, nor were there strong contingency plans for keeping the ships afloat.
After all, if you’re concerned you’re going to be in space for hundreds of years, why wouldn’t you bring up resources that would allow you to salvage old ships, and use those scrap parts to build new ships? Why is the default option for the ships to essentially have to crash-land on earth? However. This is my brain nitpicking since I like to ask questions, and I 100% guarantee, 1) I’m probably the few people who are asking these questions, and 2) This does not hinder your enjoyment of this book one bit.
If anything, I’d like for Donne to explore this world further. It’s a trip I’m willing to take. Highly recommend.
About the author:
Alexa Donne is a Ravenclaw who wears many hats, including teen mentor, college admissions essay advisor, fan convention organizer, YouTuber, and podcaster. When she's not writing science fiction and fantasy for teens, Alexa works in international television marketing. A proud Boston University Terrier, she lives in Los Angeles with two fluffy ginger cats named after YA literature characters. Visit her at www.alexadonne.com or on most social media spaces @alexadonne.