Book Review: First Light by Rebecca Stead. Thank you to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy!
First Light was a beautiful read, blending science fiction and fantasy in a clever way, filled with mystery and suspense, and with its lovable characters. Rebecca Stead is most well-known for her second book When You Reach Me, the Newbery Medal winner – which I do highly recommend! – but I did slightly prefer First Light over it: its plot was more complex, and the characters more compelling. My thoughts are below the blurb.
Thea has never seen the sun. Her world lies deep within a glacier, a place of great beauty, hardship and superstition. She longs for her people to return to the surface, but her search forces her to defy her powerful grandmother – and reveals the truth behind her mother’s tragic death.
Peter has arrived in Greenland to live on the ice while his father studies climate change. There, he is troubled by strange visions – visions that lead him to a crevice in the glacier…
To start with, I absolutely adored Thea, one of the protagonists. She’s a fourteen-year-old from Gracehope – an imaginary society of hundreds of people inside a glacier in Greenland, descended from a group of persecuted settlers who sought safety there, several generations ago. Thea’s given nuance through the pressure she feels as the last daughter of the first line of settlers, through her role caring for the Chikchu dogs within her society, and her relationships with those around her (her conflict with her grandmother Rowen, and her friendships and family relationships). What I loved most about her was her passionate conviction in finding a better path for her people, and her courage and vulnerability throughout the story.
Peter, the other POV character, was also really likable – though he’s not given as much depth as Thea is, and the chapters from his perspective initially feel quite slow in comparison. It’s not a huge issue though, and in retrospect, makes sense in light (ha, ha) of what it was setting up. It’s nice to see how curious he is about, and how he realistically reacts to, the completely different world he faces in Greenland.
The supporting characters were also well-portrayed. I liked how there was a balance between giving the adult characters depth, and having us empathise most with the young characters and their perspectives – many middle-grade novels don’t do very well in this regard. There aren’t really any ‘minor’ characters – sufficient attention is given to everyone as they’re set up at the start, and later, more is revealed about them or a different side of them is shown. I’m hoping we’ll see more diversity amongst Rebecca Stead’s casts as time goes on, as this has been pretty lacking in the books I’ve read of hers (all of them except Goodbye, Stranger) so far.
The worldbuilding in this book was also amazing. The fictional society of Gracehope is fascinating, with their specific traditions and hierarchies, the visual descriptions of their world under the ice (how they skate to get around, the lake, the council chamber…), their history, and the different roles within the society. I also liked how their society paralleled enough with ours that you could understand it really well from the start – many fantasy books have the problem of being too confusing in their introductions, but that didn’t happen here – I was easily immersed.
Additionally, I was impressed by the blend of science fiction and fantasy in this book. This is obviously tricky to pull off, and First Light was great in that respect. I also liked how the very relevant issue of climate change was integrated throughout the story – it really showed an awareness of and made you care about the issue (if, well, you didn’t care already) without being straightforwardly didactic.
Finally, what really kept me reading throughout the book were the mystery elements. Thea encounters secrets and questions about her people’s history, and the future meant for them. Peter wonders about what his parents seem to be hiding, and comes across surprises on the ice. I was really impressed by the way information was revealed as these mysteries were uncovered – whereas other books often go into too much of an infodump, First Light never did this. Good use of context and timing to spread out the information, the use of different characters to tell these stories, having surprises, and imbuing everything deeply with emotion all aided in this.
First Light would be great for inspiring an interest in science and awareness of global warming, as an introduction to fantasy, and for the mystery elements, in kids. It’s not just for the middle grade target audience though – the story’s complex and compelling enough for readers of any age. Definitely recommended.