I’ll let it be known that I have never read Jane Eyre—at least, not in its entirety. I began it sometime in college, but distractions prevented me from finishing it. However, that didn’t prevent me from picking up Alexa Donne’s Brightly Burning, a sci-fi retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s classic. Like with Jenna Moreci, Ms. Donne’s YouTube channel of writing advice has proved entertaining and inspirational. So, as a thank-you to someone whose writing insights have proved very helpful, I’m checking out Ms. Donne’s sci-fi reimagining of a girl who falls in love with a man whose secrets may prove fatal.
Seventeen-year-old Stella Ainsley works as a spaceship engineer/teacher on a fleet circling Earth (the planet was plunged into an ice age following a supervolcano eruption). But Stella’s life changes when she is invited to be a governess aboard another ship called the Rochester, one reputed to be haunted. Luckily, Stella’s new life proves very comfortable and exciting, despite her complicated relationship with the Rochester’s captain, Hugo Fairfax. But strange laughter, vicious pranks, and attempts on Hugo’s life complicate things further, and Stella will have to tread carefully, not only if she wants to protect her new friends, but also her heart.
Brightly Burning, luckily, does not rely on you knowing anything about Jane Eyre. There are little nods to the original story, namely with the names (Reed, Ingram, Charlotte, Rochester, etc.), but it still tells an engaging original story. The setting is comfortably reminiscent of Marissa Meyer’s excellent Lunar Chronicles series, where a classic story is retold with sci-fi elements, which I enjoyed returning to.
On the one hand, the story is a comfortable romantic one. That means that you can enjoy watching the characters live their lives in the Rochester. You can also enjoy the delightful tension between Hugo, Stella, and Hugo’s clingy childhood friend, Bianca Ingram.
But once Stella discovers a larger problem than her own feelings for Hugo, then the pace takes off like a rocket. We go from having a comfortable, standard romance plot to a high-speed chase through government conspiracies, secrets coming to light, undercover missions, etc. Such a change in pace might be jarring, but I think it’s part and parcel to sci-fi: you can’t set a story in space without high stakes—without the dangers of living in such a treacherous environment.
We have the standard cast of characters leading us through this story, headed by the spitfire orphan Stella, and the brooding and lonely captain Hugo. I liked Stella’s softness towards her students, perhaps because I, as a teacher, can relate to student-teacher tenderness. Other than that, she was a pretty standard strong heroine. Hugo, on the other end, took some time for me to warm up to. He spends a chunk of the story as a curt, aloof drunk, and at first, I was afraid that Stella would fall in love with him while he acted as such. He does straighten up eventually, but I think it’s just a matter of personal taste that he was not my new favorite YA hero (I’ve never really found Byronic heroes, with their intense stares, dark rooms, and keep-your-distance personalities very interesting).
If you’re still on withdrawal from the Lunar Chronicles, then I would recommend Brightly Burning. It might also prove to you the timelessness of Jane Eyre, and make you curious to return to the original Charlotte Bronte novel.