Brightly Burning is Jane Eyre in space. That’s the one-sentence pitch and summary of the novel, but it’s smart enough in what it keeps and sheds from the source text that it largely stands on its own. To put it into more fannish terms: if it were on the Archive of Our Own as a Jane Eyre alternate universe fic, I’d definitely be giving it kudos (and maybe leaving a little appreciative comment).
One of the first tests of whether I’ll enjoy a science fiction story is the effectiveness and intrigue of the world-building. In that regard, Brightly Burning delights; it’s precise and colorful without being too pedantic or exacting. The details emerge rather skillfully: several hundred years in the future, the Earth has become uninhabitable due to a natural disaster that left the planet frozen. The survivors escaped into a fleet of ships, essentially divided by country and/or nation, or by trade (as well as transport and private ships for the wealthiest); yet author Alexa Donne gives us this information organically, without a massive sprawl of paragraphs telling how society has (and hasn’t) changed since the end of the world. It’s remarkably lucky for the future of humanity that we’ve solved the problems of traveling through space, having enough fuel, dealing with orbits and space rocks, and keeping oxygen in place before we had to escape Earth.
As can be expected, the class divides that exist on Earth also get transported up into space: the elite wealthy inhabitants live it up in the Lady Liberty (the American ship), the Empire (the British ship), and other nation-ships, while Stella Ainsley, an engineer and teacher, is stuck on the Stalwart, where water is rationed and food is reduced to only the most essential nutritional components. Incredibly, there are just the right amount of characters to populate Donne’s world but not confuse the reader—although there are a few roles that could have been combined, like the handful of male friends Stella has on the Stalwart who are so thinly sketched as to blend together. The Stalwart is where the workers grow the crops for everyone else’s ships, so Stella is eager to escape what she sees as a disappointing lack of future prospects and takes a job as a governess on a private ship called the Rochester. Unfortunately for Stella, life on the Rochester isn’t as simple an opportunity it may seem, what with the strange noises in the middle of the night, just out of earshot.
The story kicks into gear when Stella arrives on the Rochester and meets Hugo Fairfax, the brooding, mercurial nineteen-year-old captain born into wealth and privilege. The heat and spark of this central romance is conveyed through Stella’s self-conscious, but increasingly determined interior monologue. Much like Twilight’s Edward Cullen, Brightly Burning’s Hugo Fairfax is not meant for me, but for the young adults who will be reading the book. (I’d have about ten seconds of patience for Hugo’s angsty, arrogant behavior, but if I picture him as looking like Ethan Peck circa 10 Things I Hate About You, the appeal starts to make sense.)
The lessening of the age difference between Stella and Hugo versus Jane and Rochester makes their relationship a little more equal, which is a very smart choice in terms of updating Jane Eyre to appeal to modern sensibilities. Yes, he’s her employer, but he’s barely two years her senior, and has a whole staff of crew-mates to keep him in line. The flipside of making the Rochester figure younger and closer to the Jane figure’s age is that it does, unfortunately, make the character make a little less sense. I’m twenty-four; it’s hard to picture a nineteen year-old, which to me is basically a baby, having the same seductively brooding mannerisms as Michael Fassbender in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, for example.
The novel’s twist reflects and refracts (but does not copy) Rochester’s hiding his first wife in the attic, but because of the way Hugo’s role has been shifted from powerful landowner to someone barely out of his teens, Hugo comes across as a victim of circumstance and naiveté rather than a Rochester-esque antihero. He’s a moody kid with a dark past; Stella’s student on the ship is his sister, not his ward (or suspected daughter). He’s capricious with the affections of the beautiful Bianca Ingram and Stella alike; and it’s here that I really do have to remind myself that I’m not the intended audience for this book, because he’s clearly meant to appeal as a teen heartthrob bad-boy with a soft center type of character. Yet the disparate elements borrowed from Rochester, and those eschewed in this sci-fi update, make Hugo seem not like a character at all, but a set of ideas, or a symbolic obstacle for Stella. He’s not a real nineteen year-old or (I imagine) a real thirty-something year-old like Rochester, but an odd mixture of the two ages.
Unfortunately, since Brightly Burning really doesn’t start until Stella leaves the Stalwart, we don’t get the same depth of story that Jane does in Jane Eyre; the story is less about Stella Ainsley growing up and coming into her own, but about Stella-and-Hugo’s star-crossed romance. The characters we meet onboard the Rochester are carefully differentiated, if not necessarily all equally interesting; the portrayal of the upper-class Bianca, who wants to marry Hugo (and thus is Stella’s romantic rival) largely gives into the caricature of all the women we’re supposed to hate in romance novels, because they’re not the heroine: she’s beautiful, shallow, flirtatious, syrupy, selfish, which naturally contrasts with Stella’s plainer features, awkward and honest manner, and hardworking attitude. By the time Bianca reveals some hidden depths, it’s still not enough to counteract the sickly-sweet taste she’s left in our mouths.
Where Brightly Burning does lose steam is its last hundred or so pages. Whereas the development of the world of the book felt so careful in its earlier parts, the last act feels like the narrative is dashing from points A to B to C to get to when Stella and Hugo inevitably fall into one another’s arms and the story threads are all tied up in a bow. The inclusion of the element of mass media and newspapers feels entirely like a plot device, since they’re only really introduced late in the narrative in order to serve as yet another foe for Stella.
When Brightly Burning gets a little more complicated and daring is when Stella begins to question the nature of the way society has arranged itself, and how Hugo and his family are intertwined into the deepest mysteries and most terrible secrets of the fleet. I’d have actually preferred for Brightly Burning to lean in more to its themes of the dangers of greed and classism, its exploration of human nature and bravery, and to give us more of Stella herself, rather than hewing so closely to the expected Jane-Rochester romance in the source text.