Fantasy / Urban / Dystopian
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.
Rating: 3.75 / 5
I can’t remember how I first heard of Karina Sumner-Smith’s debut novel Radiant (most likely somewhere on Twitter), but the premise grabbed my attention right away. Even better, the persuasion worked twofold: a clever plot, but also an invitation to a world where a magic system exists alongside urban, paranormal, science fiction, and dystopian elements. Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? If your answer is “yes,” then Radiant will be a welcome addition to your bookshelf.
One of Radiant’s greatest strengths is the fantastic world-building. Despite what seems like a hodge-podge of elements – ghosts, magic, floating Towers above the impoverished Lower City, hovercrafts, ground-to-Tower elevators, night-walkers – Xhea and Shai’s world feels incredibly real. Everything fits the gritty, futuristic setting in tone or image. Sumner-Smith’s evocative writing style also enhances the reader’s experience in the City. It allows readers to picture the crumbling buildings and caving subway tunnels, hear the heavy breathing of the night-walkers (I swore those creatures would give me nightmares), and feel the bumps and shakes of the aircar ride (my favorite scene in the book!). Finally, I appreciated the fresh twists on trite fantasy tropes, particularly how magic is considered a form of wealth because of how commonly it occurs in the City – and how not having magic throws a resident into poverty.
Another aspect I enjoyed about Radiant was seeing a friendship between female characters as the primary relationship. This rarely happens in the fantasy genre. At the same time, Xhea and Shai aren’t just two young women gushing about boys, fashion, and superficial subjects. Instead, they’re struggling to protect each other as they navigate their hostile environment and thwart enemies from rival Towers. The fact that Shai’s a ghost – dead, compared to the alive and (literally) kicking Xhea – adds a whole other dynamic. What makes this friendship so believable despite that fantasy “difference” is the balance in personality. The homeless Xhea is plucky, feisty, and tenacious, while Shai retains the innocence, warmth, and grace she must have possessed when living. The two characters motivate each other as a result, and grow from their comradery.
One supporting character who intrigued me was Lorn Edren, one of the authority figures of Tower Edren and a man who Xhea rescued in the past. He’s fair and protective toward Xhea, yet the few hints of backstory offered suggest a troubling past. This duality of darkness and light makes me hope we’ll learn more about him as the Towers Trilogy continues and see him play a larger role as a second friend and ally to Xhea.
The only downside with Radiant is that it relies too heavily on narrative. Sometimes the story goes on for paragraphs of world-building, thoughts, or description of setting or action before a character speaks again. I think this angle can be justified: Xhea is used to being alone, so she spends chunks of time thinking to herself and observing during Radiant. However, without the normal dialogue-exposition balance, there were times when the pace should have urged my heart to pump with fear but didn’t. It does pick up for the middle and most of the final third, though, so don’t give up on this book too soon.
And in hindsight, I’m glad I stuck with Radiant. I came away from it feeling as battered as Xhea did (Sumner-Smith isn’t afraid of making her characters go through hell to achieve their goals) and with wide-eyed wonder. The world that Sumner-Smith has created here is riveting, with its mix of terror and beauty and the stark disparity between the City’s haves and have-nots. Plus, it’s impossible to not root for Xhea and Shai. Radiant allows both characters – especially Xhea – to evolve, and their teamwork is unlike anything I’ve read about before. Fans of adult and YA fantasy shouldn’t let this book slip under their radar. It’s a darkly immersive read with an ending that steals your breath and stays with you for days afterwards. I’m already looking forward to my next ticket to the City when Radiant’s sequel Defiant comes out next year.
Have you read Radiant? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here to find it on Amazon and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”