Review: Brightly Burning

Brightly Burning
By Alexa Donne
Published on May 1, 2018 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Adapting a much-loved classic into a modern or futuristic setting can be tricky. So much of the conflict in Jane Eyre is related to the societal restrictions of the time. In a modern world, there wouldn’t be any need to hide your insane wife in the attic. She would hopefully have good medical treatment (the Rochester money would mean probably yes). Maybe modern advances in psychiatric drugs would have helped her. Maybe she and Rochester would never have married in the first place, in a world where people don’t have to marry someone they barely know.

BrightlyBy setting Brightly Burning in the future (how far in the future isn’t clear), Alexa Donne adds back into the mix some social structures that work with the original plot. There’s a dystopian quality to this version. After a new ice age, Earth became uninhabitable, and the remains of humanity took to space, living in large spaceships that orbit around Earth. There is some serious inequality (orphans get shipped off to the worst ships to do jobs like growing food for the other ships, the wealthy get to live on better ships, and the super-rich can afford their own private ships). Resources are limited, and there’s a definite hierarchy of ships. Life expectancy is low, and people get married early. When a ship’s outlives its usefulness, it may be forced to de-orbit back to Earth, but no one knows whether Earth is even inhabitable.

The Jane Eyre character, Stella Ainsley, lived on the Empire, a ship with some luxuries. Her parents both died when she was young, and she was briefly in the care of her aunt. After a virus killed many people on the various ships, the fleet instituted an orphan transfer program, and the aunt sent Stella off to the Stalwart, a much less desirable ship populated mostly by young orphans. The Stalwart grows food for the other ships in the fleet, and living on it is definitely a step down. Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to see why Stella might want to leave the Stalwart. She works as an engineer, but her dream is to be a teacher. Poor orphans don’t have a lot of opportunities, so Stella leaps at the chance to become a teacher on a private ship, the Rochester.

Life on the Rochester is a revelation for Stella. Owned by the wealthy Fairfax family, the ship is large and luxurious. There is ample food, water, and anything else Stella might want or need. Her pupil Jessa is delightful, and the rest of the crew seem nice enough, if a little odd. The swoon arrives in the form of the ship’s captain, Hugo Fairfax, Jessa’s older brother. At just 19, he’s the captain of the ship and in charge of a large family fortune. (Yes, the age difference between Jane and Rochester has been eliminated, but I’m fine with that. The age difference is kind of creepy when it’s not the 19th century.)

Stella and Hugo bond over their shared love of books (the ship is unusual in that it has actual paper books), and an attraction develops, but Hugo is the brooding type and he drinks too much. There’s clearly something odd happening on the ship, and the rest of the crew are tight-lipped when Stella asks any questions. The story begins to play out much as you would expect from a Jane Eyre retelling, but the author has made enough changes to the original tale to keep things interesting.

Brightly Burning is a fast-paced retelling that takes the original story to some interesting new places. Stella in an engaging heroine, and the romance, while not quite rising to the emotional resonance of the original, makes you root for them to overcome their circumstances. I think fans of the original will enjoy it (although purists may have some issues), but you don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to read this book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

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