Tag Archives: Dystopian

RADIANT: Nicole’s Review

RadiantTitle: RADIANT

Author: Karina Sumner-Smith

Publisher: Talos

Genre: YA Fantasy

Pages: 400

Synopsis: Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City’s floating Towers.

When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless—until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.


Karina Sumner-Smith’s debut novel is an edgy tale of friendship and the dark economies of magic. She twists traditional fantasy elements in utterly unique ways and creates an overall enjoyable read.

Xhea lives on the rough streets of the Lower City, below the floating towers of the City where those with innate magic trade and horde power in a cutthroat game of houses. Without her own magic (aka currency), Xhea’s left alone to face night-wandering zombies and the ever-present threat of starvation. Her single source of income is her strange ability to interact with ghosts.

When a city man approaches her, desperate to hand her the tether (think spiritual anchor) for Shai—the ghost girl he’s carrying—Xhea’s all too happy to accept his magical payment. But the payoff leads to more than a temporary high, and as she unravels Shai’s story, Xhea finds herself drawn into a friendship and adventure fraught with city politics, magical intrigue and danger.

RADIANT’s worldbuilding incorporates a lot of potentially dynamic elements. It’s no doubt a dystopian society, but it begins in far enough beyond the era of destruction that it doesn’t feel like your typical dystopian. The Lower City mirrors a fallen New York or London, while the City hovers above it in an impressive collection of floating spires. A great example of worldbuilding elegance is Sumner-Smith’s “elevators,” discs opened and powered by magic that carry individual users from the Lower City to the towers. Simple, yet sophisticated!

She also has an interesting interpretation of the “dark underside” of magic. It’s one of the things that caught my attention most while reading.

  • Magic as a class system: This has been done in a number of ways in previous books, but Sumner-Smith is adept at making it feel exclusive and privileged in RADIANT—partly because she ties magical ability so closely to her world’s economy and payment. Xhea, who doesn’t possess innate magic, isn’t looked on as simply poor (like she might be in other variations of magical class systems); in RADIANT’s society, she seems more like a leper, completely ostracized without any real ability to get ahead in the world.
  • Magic as payment and fuel: Again, while other books might house magic in certain coins or gems for payment, Sumner-Smith takes it a step further and internalizes it as a life-force, similar to the way time works in the movie IN TIME. Each person has a certain store of magic built up inside them, and they can pay or gain against that. This, rather than hard currency, is the fuel and power of RADIANT’s society. So, when Xhea gets a “payment,” it’s actually a physical transfusion of magic from her customer to her. Very cool!
  • Magical highs, overdoses and detox: Xhea is a fascinating character, in part, because she’s a stereotypically “bad” street kid. She smokes, she’s addicted to magic almost like a drug, and she craves payment for the “high” it brings her. When she’s paid, the magic enables her to see in color instead of the gray spectrum she naturally sees, and it fills what she calls her “emptiness.” It’s unsettling and compelling all at once, and makes for a very powerful introduction to this character and what she’s faced in her young life. Later, we also see her come down off a scary magical high reminiscent of a detox. I like that Sumner-Smith grafted these grittier concepts together with our more traditional views of magic. It felt entirely fresh!
  • Magic as illness: We also see a dark, disturbing side of magic in Shai’s circumstances. She possesses such a font of magic, her home tower uses her to run not only its facilities, but its economy and trading power as well. No matter the physical toll to Shai herself. Almost like a human battery. As if that’s not enough, Sumner-Smith shows us twin consequences of that model: magic working as a machine to falsely sustain the body while draining away true life, and magic as something very close to euthanasia.

While the darkness of the subject matter didn’t make this a particularly happy read, I appreciated Sumner-Smith’s skill in flipping traditional concepts the way she did.

The book is broken into three parts, and the first and last have high-emotion endings.

One of the repeated talking points for RADIANT is its focus on the female friendship between Xhea and Shai. I’ll give it kudos for this, since it’s something I’d like to see more of in SFF, and the friendship definitely drives Xhea’s actions. However, I found it touching more so because it’s Xhea’s ONLY friendship, than because it’s particularly strong  or unique.

Xhea as a character left me torn. She opens strong and there are continual layers to her backstory, which keep her intriguing as an anti-hero (which I like in contrast to a lot of the perky heroes these days), but at times she skews a little too moody or gets stuck on something that doesn’t seem important to the plot. The girl is not the wisest decision-maker!

Overall, Sumner-Smith creates a nice mix. Her short story experience shines through in her turns of phrase and atmospheric descriptions, and she captures the mood quickly in a scene. I wanted to feel a deeper connection among each plot element. While it was all interesting, I didn’t get a good sense of history or why certain things happened the way they did. The same goes for character introductions. It’s the first in a series, though, so I’m guessing she’ll weave it together more strongly in future books.

RADIANT leaves a lot of unanswered questions that will pull readers into the rest of the series!

4 Stars



Find it on Amazon.

Review initially posted on Fantasy Faction.


LEGEND Trilogy: Nicole’s Review


Author: Marie Lu

Publisher: Speak (Penguin Group)

Genre: YA Fantasy

Release Date: Various

Pages: Various

Synopsis: Since this review covers all three books in the trilogy, I’ll stick with high level plot recaps for books 2 and 3:

LEGEND: What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

PRODIGY: June and Day join the Patriot rebels to win help and passage to the Colonies just as a new Elector Primo ascends. The only catch is they have to assassinate the new Elector. And what if they’re wrong?

CHAMPION: June and Day have sacrificed so much for the people of the Republic—and each other—and now their country is on the brink of a new existence. But just when a peace treaty is imminent, a plague outbreak causes panic in the Colonies, and war threatens the Republic’s border cities once more.


Okay, I admit it, Marie Lu’s LEGEND series was one I put off reading because I was burned out on dystopian and thought it was overhyped. Newsflash: It pleasantly turns several dystopian tropes on their heads and deserves all the hype it got.

The trilogy is written in first person, dual POV, but unlike some alternating YA, readers can instantly tell which character is narrating by their personality and voice. June’s logic and military training shine through, and her chapters often include a report of time and place, and fact checking reconnaissance throughout. Day, on the other hand, is far more informal and emotional. Each is equally endearing and refreshing, and Marie Lu deserves applause for pulling it off. (Sidenote: June and Day each have their own chapter font and color. Cannot explain how much I loved this! Kudos to the publisher for investing in these books at that level!)

As main characters, June and Day balance each other nicely and neither veers into an all-consuming love fest where the other person is THE ONLY THING that matters. June is worried about her brother’s memory, her old contacts and friends, and the Republic at its highest levels of structure and government. Day, meanwhile, is focused on protecting his little brother, Eden, his best friend, Tess, and in somehow getting them all out of this mess, Republic-be-damned.

The plot succeeds in large part because the characters’ values so often conflict that “love” and “helping the other” becomes a choice both Day and June must make over and over and over again. It’s never easy, and sometimes it’s not even clear that it’s right. I really enjoyed seeing a YA that drew upon these sacrifices and decisions. It made me root for June and Day’s love all the more!

The trilogy unfolds in an impressive plot arc. I’d rank LEGEND and the first half of PRODIGY as superb YA dystopian, yet Lu then takes it into whole new territory for the end of PRODIGY and CHAMPION. More adult-like in themes and complexities. Readers are kept guessing as to whether the MCs will survive or be able to be together. That’s a rarity for me, and it was delightful to sit back and wonder how CHAMPION would end. I loved how Lu pushed this!

One key plot thread emerges at the end of PRODIGY, and it literally stole my breath because I couldn’t believe the author would go there. But she didn’t shirk from it as too many YAs tend to do, and carried it through all the way. It speaks strongly of the series that my favorite of the three is CHAMPION – each gets increasingly better!

Lu also weaves in fantastic worldbuilding that feels particularly genuine and scary because you can see shades of a future that COULD happen: a country divided (Civil War, anyone?), the themes of dictatorship and corporate state, the issues of right and wrong, the question of human rights overall, what constitutes freedom, and what will you fight for?

In the end, Lu’s answer, as well as June’s and Day’s, is family and people. It’s this belief that gives such a strong personal focal point to what could otherwise have felt like a political war between two distant and corrupt states. Lu mixes the personal and worldwide stakes with exceptional talent.

There are many gray answers in this world, but I like that it didn’t become an excuse to view everything as gray—the trilogy definitely sets up clear right and wrong. And then it enjoys making its characters toe that line!

If the series has a fault, it’s that 15 year olds would not have been put in charge of half the stuff June and Day were. This made me chuckle in a few places, but strangely it’s also part of what made LEGEND great because the series easily reads with the subtle complexities and emotional nuances of an adult book, simply with younger MCs. If you can handle the extended suspension of disbelief, it’s well worth your time!

While LEGEND has the pacing and action of a typical dystopian, it has a twistier plot and a LOT more heart. I felt for these characters – Day in particular – and they became “real” in a way not many others do. Can’t wait for the planned movie!! Crossing my fingers for 2016!

5 Stars



Find this trilogy on Amazon.