Author: Karina Sumner-Smith
Genre: YA Fantasy
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!
Find it on Amazon.
Review initially posted on Fantasy Faction.