Tuesday, June 13, 2023

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

The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson
Tor Books
Publication Date: June 13th, 2023
Hardcover. 352 pages.

About The First Bright Thing:

"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."

The First Bright Thing is a dazzling story of magic, misfits, and found family, as well as a thoughtful story of war, trauma, and finding one's place, meaning, and purpose in this world. This book was a very mixed bag for me, and many things worked well for me, while some things didn't work quite as well. 

The story follows Rin and her circus troupe of misfits, who are comprised of individuals gifted with unknown magic that have made them targets for those who fear their new magical gifts, as they travel as the Circus of the Fantasticals and bring joy and hope to every place they travel. It takes place in a post WWI setting where people are still struggling to overcome the trauma from that event, only to slowly realize that tensions are once again rising and there are new impending wars on the horizon. In addition, Rin is continuously on the run from a figure from her past who wants to bring ruin to her own circus. 

I loved how this story incorporated so many beautiful elements to make it into inclusive and magical tale. You can find queer and Jewish rep within this found family of unique individuals that all work together to celebrate one another's talents and backgrounds. I found The First Bright Thing to be a much more melancholy and darker story than it is perhaps it may seem, and I liked how Dawson captured this atmosphere and turned it into a story with many layers to explore and incorporated just enough hope and promise for a better future to give it some strong impact. 

The characters in The First Bright Thing are all developed well and have unique and compelling backstories that help to bring them alive. Rin, our protagonist, is an incredible complex person who struggles everyday to move forward with her past and memories hanging onto her with every step she takes. I honestly didn't connect with Rin as much as I had expected to, and there were many things about her that I felt frustrated with. Despite this, I still very much enjoyed her journey and learning more about her Jewish culture and how that has impacted her life, as well as how she has managed to created such a safe and loving home for a myriad of different people who need it. 

I'm not a big time travel fan in general, but I don't mind stories that explore it and occasionally I can really enjoy it. I'm honestly still not entirely sure where I've landed on my feelings for the time travel in this book. I appreciated that the women made some general rules about how it would work and in what ways they would allow themselves to alter things, but at the same time it felt as though those rules were very hazy and only existed when it fit the story. That being said, I did enjoy getting to explore some of these different eras through the eyes of our central characters and hearing the different ways in which they attempted to help people by traveling through time. 

Some books hinge heavily on the magic where the details really matter, but The First Bright Thing is what I would describe more leaning into magical realism where I don't think you're really meant to dwell too heavily on the 'why' and 'how' of things. The magic that exists just is, and if you can accept that and simply live within the magical world that has been created, then it should all work out just fine. 

The pacing is probably where I struggled the most, as I found it rather clunky at times and containing many highs and lows of intensity that didn't always work for me. It often felt as though the progress of the story was either repetitive or stalled at times as we dove back into a flashback, and then upon returning to the present it felt as though the story spent too long rehashing something that it felt like we'd already explored at times. The flashbacks were helpful, but sometimes felt too long or as if they weren't all as needed. The pacing is also impacted by the plotting, which at times felt very thin. 

Despite inconsistent pacing, Dawson's prose is gorgeous, and I think it is her prose that really allowed me to push through any pacing or plotting issues and simply enjoy the story and the way it is told. The writing is really what makes this story feel so magical and dazzling despite the often heavy subject matter it explores and heavily focuses on. It is a style of writing that really highlight the beauty and hope that exists within the characters' world, as well as in our own world. 

Lastly, I really appreciated Dawson's exploration of trauma and the many ways in which it can affect people. This is very intermingled with the magic gifts that some characters have, and I think it was really expertly interwoven into the story in a way that felt natural and thoughtful. We see a lot of this exploration of trauma and its effects with Rin in particular, which was present in many of her struggles and actions, though we also see it with many of the supporting characters as well. 

Overall, I've given The First Bright Thing 3.75 stars!

*I received a copy of The First Bright Thing courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Buy the book: Amazon | Bookshop.org


  1. I started this and it wasn't grabbing me at all, so I set it aside (for later). But I guess I need to push through, it sounds like there are plenty of positives!

    1. I actually did the same thing, now that I think about it! I started it when I first got it and ended up putting it down after a little while until when I recently finally read it through. It definitely has it's ups and downs.