Book Review: Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

13 Nov

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.

With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.

Karina Sumner-Smith’s debut novel, “Radiant,” is fresh, enjoyable and interesting. The worldbuilding, characterization, plot, and language all work together in an involving and satisfying way. The pacing is pleasing, starting with small-scale negotiations and individual-scale risks; discoveries and choices bring greater danger, bigger decisions and sacrifices, and finally building to a City-changing conclusion. In fact, I read the last half of the book in one gulp.

In this unnamed City, nearly everyone has magic, a sort of life force that can be used for raw power or spells, but some have a lot more of it than others. There’s a huge literal and social divide between the haves, in their floating Towers, and the have-nots, eking out their lives in the Lower City (the ground level that comprises the remnants of the former technology-based civilization).
Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Xhea, the protagonist, is one of these have-nots. She has no innate magic generation (although she can interact with ghosts), and this lack makes her even more of a struggling outsider than her orphan status does. There’s a telling incident where she makes a scene, trying to get herself thrown out of a place as a fast exit; however, what starts as a calculated show of emotion quickly grows into an out-of-control rage, spurred by the haves’ indifference and incomprehension:

Xhea caught sight of a woman on her knees, scrabbling after a bag of shopping she had dropped [… ] The woman’s face was stricken, fighting tears. Over shoes.

Not a child. Not food or clean water. Sweetness-blighted shoes.

“You don’t understand what you have, do you?” Xhea said, and heard her voice twist, true pain coloring the words.

Actually, I think it’s possible that the woman might mostly have been crying at the sudden disruption to her nice safe world, not just the shoes that got run over; but she is definitely privileged, and of course we’re seeing it all from Xhea’s perspective, which is still rather limited. Since I’m quoting here, I’ll mention that the book’s wording is a nearly invisible contributing factor, but a positive one. Xhea’s voice is simple and direct, with few poetical flights, so it’s really good at driving the plot along; however, word choices are active and evocative, so Sumner-Smith still manages to build a richly layered world.

Xhea’s pain and anger felt authentic to me. She’s more contemptuous than analytical, especially at the beginning, and her frequent focus on food helps drive home how precarious her existence is; at one point, she faints from hunger. (I must admit I was a little dubious about how much trauma Xhea was able to push herself past while still functioning, but she’s a child of the streets and must be used to hardship, so I let it go.)

The story begins with a tight focus on Xhea and gradually reveals more and more about her world, paralleling Xhea’s own development from someone who really isn’t interested in much beyond her own survival into someone who puts everything on the line for a friend. She starts out without any real friends — just some business relationships. When a rich City man pays her to take custody of a ghost, she treats it as a necessary inconvenience; however, she comes to know the ghost, named Shai, and realizes that despite Shai’s privileged roots, she has also known pain, fear, and exploitation.  Xhea and Shai are very different people, working from different experiences and instincts and making different choices; I really like that neither one is right or wrong all the time. They’re also both lonely people, and circumstances encourage them to rely on each other and eventually build an unbreakable bond.

It turns out that Shai is a Radiant, such a strong generator of magic (even as a ghost) that she is a priceless asset. Her home Tower is desperate to get her back, and a rival Tower is desperate to seize her for its own purposes. Xhea decides to set Shai free, and ends up dodging night walkers, running from one hidey-hole to another, calling in favors from associates, facing old enemies and making new ones, and increasing her understanding (and the reader’s) of how the world works.

As the book proceeds, Xhea discovers that while she doesn’t generate her own magic force, she does have a sort of negative energy that drains and disrupts normal magic. In a way, I was slightly disappointed by this, since I was interested in how her powerless character was getting along, scrounging buried tech treasures in sites that were uncomfortable for regular magically endowed people to visit; but that’s not the focus of this book. And it was very interesting to see what Xhea did with her developing ability, disrupting not just individual spells and devices but also webs and structures of magical power, and thereby some of the structures of society, apparently for the better.

SPOILERS AND SPECULATIONS

The book is the first in a trilogy, so I’m hoping these issues will be explored eventually:

  • We don’t learn why Xhea’s dark magic is so different from everybody else’s. Will she find out more about its origins (and maybe her own, since she was orphaned too early to remember her parents)? Is it really a death force, and is that why she can interact with ghosts?
  • Also, the book starts out with Xhea addicted to raw magic, which she buys and consumes like a drug to get high, but as her dark power develops, this habit becomes painful and she drops it. This seemed like a really easy out for an addiction subplot. Has she really been “cured” by the improvements in her life, or will addiction manifest in other ways in future books? Since her dark magic can and does reach out and drain magic force without Xhea’s conscious effort, might the hunger inside grow beyond her control?
  • We aren’t told how or why magic arose in the world, or what the transition was like, and why so much of the Lower City has fallen into disrepair and nobody is making new tech (except magic-based). Neither do we hear whether there are any other Cities or if this is the only one. I’d like to know more about the origins and current state of this world.
  • At the end of the book, some Tower relationships are shifting radically, and one character explicitly states that “Everything is about to change.” At least one person in a semi-powerful position has indicated he may treat Shai as a person instead of just trying to use her, and it looks as though some elements of the Lower City may end up with a lot more negotiating room. I’m eager to find out where this goes and what happens next.
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