Review:  BRIGHT BURNING STARS by A.K. SmallBright Burning Stars by A.K. Small
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on May 21, 2019
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.


Today is my stop on the Algonquin Young Readers blog tour for A.K. Small’s debut novel, Bright Burning Stars.  I’m thrilled to be able to share my thoughts on this fantastic read with all of you.  Thanks so much to Brittani from Algonquin for inviting me to take part in the tour.



A.K. Small’s Bright Burning Stars is a powerful debut that exposes the dark underbelly of competition at an elite ballet school in Paris.  The story follows Marine Duval and Kate Sanders, who have been best friends ever since they first started training at the school.  As the girls get older, the training gets more and more intense and the stakes get higher.  What every student wants is “the prize” – a spot in a prestigious ballet company.  The problem?  Only one male and one female student are chosen each year to win the prize and the competition is truly fierce, with students resorting to desperate measures to give themselves an edge over their fellow competitors.  Can Marine and Kate’s friendship survive in such a cutthroat environment?

This was such an addictive read for me, in part because of the nature of the competition itself and because of the toll it took on each of the student dancers.  There was just so much tension and suspense! I couldn’t stop turning the pages because I wanted to know who was going to win, of course, but also what the students were willing to do in order to win.  The very nature of the competition pits students against one another, forcing them into isolation from one another rather than encouraging them to bond.  As if that weren’t enough, there is also the regular ranking of students based on performance, which leads the students to define their self-worth strictly in terms of what their ranking happens to be at that moment and their sense of worth goes up or down as the rankings change.

I think the author does an incredible job of vividly and realistically portraying just how unhealthy such an environment is and what a strain it can put on even the strongest of friendships.  This is an environment primed for mental health struggles, drug abuse and eating disorders in the strive for a perfect dancer’s body, endless cattiness and jealousy, and even suicidal thoughts.  I found the challenges that both Marine and Kate faced to be riveting, and between the physical and emotional strain they were both under, I truly worried from page to page if both of them, and their friendship, could withstand the immense pressure they were under.

I also loved the way the author starkly contrasts the exquisite beauty of the dance itself with all of that ugliness that takes place behind the scenes.  I thought it made for a very powerful read.

Bright Burning Stars is a moving read about the drive for perfection, unrealistic expectation, and the need to sometimes reevaluate what’s most important in life.  I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in a dark story that will leave you with plenty to think about long after you’ve finished reading.




Best friends Marine Duval and Kate Sanders have trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School since childhood, where they’ve formed an inseparable bond forged by respective family tragedies and a fierce love for dance. When the body of a student is found in the dorms just before the start of their final year, Marine and Kate begin to ask themselves what they would do to win the ultimate prize: to be the one girl selected to join the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet. Would they die? Cheat? Seduce the most talented boy in the school, dubbed the Demigod, hoping his magic would make them shine, too? Neither girl is sure.

But then Kate gets closer to the Demigod, even as Marine has begun to capture his heart. And as selection day draws near, the competition—for the prize, for the Demigod—becomes fiercer, and Marine and Kate realize they have everything to lose, including each other.


About A.K. Small

A.K. SMALL was born in Paris. At five years old, she began studying classical dance with the legendary Max Bozzoni, then later with Daniel Franck and Monique Arabian at the famous Académie Chaptal. At thirteen, she moved to the United States where she danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet for one summer in Seattle and with the Richmond Ballet Student Company for several years. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and has an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, she spends time with her husband, her puppy, and her three daughters, and practices yoga. Bright Burning Stars is her first novel.

16 replies
  1. verushka
    verushka says:

    That cover is … as beautiful as it is, when you look at her face, you can see that she’s so drawn and thin and wrecked. Which is kind of what you’ve described the students go through. It’s awful but I can understand how desperately the students want their rankings. Whew. What a story this is — great review, Suzanne!

    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      I agree about the cover. That and the title were really what made me curious about the story itself. It’s a very impressive debut.

  2. Angela
    Angela says:

    The ballet school setting is not one I’ve come across in books before, and it sounds so interesting! Such an intense, all-consuming life!

  3. lisa thomson
    lisa thomson says:

    This sounds fascinating, Suzanne. It calls to mind the film Black Swan but I digress. This is probably much deeper. I wonder if this author will be in trouble for revealing secrets of the ballet school 😀 Of course, it’s fictional. Great review! I’m astounded at the number of books you have read lately. I’m also a little jealous. I will pop over to a few more of your reviews to catch up!

    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      Thanks! Yes, I’ve gotten out of the habit of watching TV in the evenings and on weekends, so I’m getting a lot of reading done instead.

  4. Sam@wlabb
    Sam@wlabb says:

    This was a page turner for me, as well. At time, it was amazing to see the strength and beauty of them as dancers, but then, there were those train wreck moments, which just left me in a bit of shock.

  5. Lindsi
    Lindsi says:

    This is another book on my TBR that I’ve been curious about! What was that movie… The Dark Swan? Is it anything like that? Because that movie totally freaked me out. Everything with her toenails…ugh. I feel like ballet dancers in books like to talk about their broken feet, and while I understand that’s part of ballet, it’s also horrifying to read about in detail.

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? 💬

    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      I’ve not seen Dark Swan but from what you’re describing, it’s probably somewhat similar although geared toward a slightly younger audience. It’s a great read but definitely a dark one as well.

  6. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight
    Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    I wonder how similar this is to actual ballet. It does seem like a very cutthroat, intense environment, and I know ballet dancers push themselves very hard to get that good. This sounds like a great book! Esp with that contrast between the backstage and then the beauty of the dance.

    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      I wondered the same thing and then when I read the author’s note and saw that she has actually been a dancer, I figure it must be pretty darn close at least to the elite schools.

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