Recent Reads: “Radiant” by Karina Sumner-Smith

Radiant-cover

Radiant
Karina Sumner-Smith
Fantasy / Urban / Dystopian

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.

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.”

Recent Reads: “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

Discovery of Witches cover

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
Fantasy / Paranormal / Romance

Synopsis:

When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.

For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.

Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.

Rating: 3.5 / 5, and *Unputdownable*

Well… How do you start a review on a 570+ page fantasy novel that combines witchcraft, vampires, forbidden love, Darwinism, alchemy, genetics, and boatloads of history stretching back for centuries? And that’s not everything readers will find in A Discovery of Witches, the first book of Deborah Harkness’ best-selling All Souls Trilogy. I’m a bit of a latecomer to this series (The Book Of Life, the concluding novel, was published in July), and a skeptical one because the paranormal genre doesn’t appeal to me. However, anyone I know who’s read the All Souls Trilogy adores it, so I figured I should give A Discovery of Witches a shot – and though I have some issues with this story, it really was worth reading.

When Discovery begins, historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop comes across a long-lost alchemy manuscript known as Ashmole 782 in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Diana realizes the manuscript’s bewitched and returns it to the stacks that day, but her discovery has already set off sparks in the world of magic. Within days, Oxford is overrun by witches, vampires, and daemons, all eager for Diana to recall Ashmole 782 so they can discover its secrets. Among them is vampire-geneticist Matthew Clairmont, who positions himself as Diana’s ally and protector despite his skewed moral compass. Because some creatures have threatened Diana’s life over the manuscript – and as an unlikely romance blossoms between Diana and Matthew, those same rivals are willing to tear the two scholars apart.

Like with my previous review (Mary Weber’s Storm Siren), I’m going to start with criticisms despite the positive rating – because once again, I questioned whether I’d finish the book. Firstly, the pace of Discovery is excrutiatingly slow. The first chapter is crammed with backstory that could have been spread out more evenly in later chapters, and other scenes crawl because of the amount of unnecessary step-by-step details. Also, I was annoyed by the shifts in POV. Only four chapters are narrated outside of Diana’s perspective, and are written in third-person omniscient. So, the reader learns not only what Matthew’s thinking or feeling, but what other characters in the scene are experiencing. It was too jarring of a change for me, and thankfully the POV switches only a few times.

The final problem I had with Discovery was that I didn’t experience the conflict’s stakes with Diana. Instead of her being in the thick of the peril and dissention, the other characters (especially Matthew) often shield Diana or keep her at a distance from the villainy. When the antagonists do appear, their presence seems… random and convenient. The few fights and action scenes Harkness includes did take my breath away with their vividness and urgency, yet I wish more scenes like that existed in the story.

So, why did I keep reading Discovery? From Page 100 onward, I found myself completely sucked into the story (no pun intended because of the vampire characters). Golden nuggets popped up everywhere: the Bishops’ quirky and “alive” house, the incredible employment of the senses of taste and smell, the growing cast of unique and endearing characters, the symbolism of Diana’s name. Also, Discovery is quite funny at times! From certain one-liners or bits of dialogue (Matthew’s son Marcus and Diana’s aunt Sarah made for excellent comic relief) to the contrast between Harkness’ intellectual writing style and the absurdity of a given scene or flashback, I laughed with genuine delight throughout the story. Finally, I thought it was neat that Harkness tied much of the characters’ ancestry with historical events such as the Salem witch trials and various international wars. It added a richness and depth to the story that made it more authentic.

Ahhh, Diana and Matthew. Their courtship may have been why Discovery dragged on so long, but what a pleasure it was to watch them get to know each other and fall in love. Both characters are also beautifully developed. Matthew is charming, sophisticated, intelligent, and humorous when least expected – as well as evasive, overprotective of Diana, and struggling to rein in his unpredictable rage. Harkness has only scratched the surface of Matthew’s centuries-long life of emotional wounds in Discovery, and I have a feeling he’ll confront more as the trilogy continues. As for Diana, she’s the yang to Matthew’s yin. Her frankness, bravery, and ability to sponge-absorb all the information thrown at her make her a truly admirable heroine. Sometimes her childishness irritated me, and I hope Diana eventually outgrows it, but it didn’t prevent me from connecting with her.

So, yes, A Discovery of Witches was quite the discovery. While Harkness’ writing style could use some tightening and the story’s turtle-pace tried my patience, the characters and other redeeming qualities compelled me to keep reading. Hey, it’s not very often that I tear through a novel of this length in less than 2 weeks! That’s why I’m giving Discovery an *Unputdownable*. Hopefully the issues I had with this novel will be resolved in Shadow of Night (although the reviews I’ve read so far indicate they might not be). That news, however, won’t deter me from following Diana and Matthew on their search for Ashmole 782.

Have you read A Discovery of Witches? 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.”

Recent Reads: “Storm Siren” by Mary Weber

storm siren cover

Storm Siren
Mary Weber
Fantasy / Young Adult

Synopsis:

“I raise my chin as the buyers stare. Yes. Look. You don’t want me. Because, eventually, accidentally, I will destroy you.”

In a world at war, a slave girl’s lethal curse could become one kingdom’s weapon of salvation. If the curse – and the girl – can be controlled.

As a slave in the war-weary kingdom of Faelen, seventeen-year-old Nym isn’t merely devoid of rights, her Elemental kind are only born male and always killed at birth – meaning, she shouldn’t even exist.

Standing on the auction block beneath smoke-drenched mountains, Nym faces her fifteenth sell. But when her hood is removed and her storm-summoning killing curse revealed, Nym is snatched up by a court advisor and given a choice: be trained as the weapon Faelen needs to win the war, or be killed.

Choosing the former, Nym is unleashed into a world of politics, bizarre parties, and rumors of an evil more sinister than she’s being prepared to fight… not to mention the handsome trainer whose dark secrets lie behind a mysterious ability to calm every lightning strike she summons.

But what if she doesn’t want to be the weapon they’ve all been waiting for?

Set in a beautifully eclectic world of suspicion, super abilities, and monsters, Storm Siren is a story of power. And whoever controls that power will win.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Wow. It’s hard to know where to begin this review of Storm Siren, because there’s so much to say. I discovered this debut novel by Mary Weber through Writer’s Digest and was convinced to check it out after seeing all the enthusiastic Twitter buzz on it. Being a fantasy writer myself, I want to absorb as much of the genre as possible. Plus, I hadn’t read any stories on elemental magic (storms, earth, water, etc.) before, so Storm Siren offered a new fantasy experience for me. And I’ll be honest: I didn’t love Storm Siren as much as other reviewers did, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Storm Siren starts off with a bang as Weber introduces us to Nym, an orphan slave girl and an Elemental with the ability to create destructive storms. When Nym’s rage-induced powers manifest during a slave auction, the court advisor Adora scoops up Nym and offers her a choice: learn to use her storm-wielding magic to save her country, or face the same fate as other Elementals – execution. Nym agrees to the training and is quickly caught up in a whirlwind of high society and political intrigue. She also finds allies in fellow Elemental trainee Colin (an earth-manipulator of sorts), Adora’s blind maid Breck, and her enigmatic instructor Eogan. As the stakes mount and war creeps closer, Nym struggles more with insecurity than with her innate magic. Can she learn to value herself by seeing the good in her powers before it’s too late?

Normally with positive reviews, I share what I liked first before the criticisms. With Storm Siren, I’ll do the opposite – because I had a hard time getting into the story. For the first third, Nym was surrounded by characters who either irritated me in some way or were difficult to like at all. It even took time for Nym to grow on me because of her constant angst and sharp attitude. Also, while I didn’t mind with the first-person POV (it draws the reader closer to Nym), I was thrown off by the use of present tense, the occasional slips of modern word choice, and frequent fragments. The tense and word choice issues in particular conflict with the historical setting, unless Storm Siren doesn’t take place as long ago as I think it does.

After that initial frustration, I found reasons to keep reading Storm Siren. The breathless action sequences, hints of a future romance between Nym and Eogan instead of a full-blown relationship within a short timeframe, Eogan’s explosive secret from his past that threatens to destroy those hopes – and the world-building! Weber’s imagination shines as she immerses readers in a fascinating universe of deadly monsters, steampunk-like airships, and parties where socialites wear vivid, animal-esque costumes (imagine the Capital from The Hunger Games, except even weirder). Even the world’s history and the characters’ slang is nothing like what I’ve experienced from other literary fantasy worlds.

Weber also deserves applause for tackling some tough themes in Storm Siren. Self-doubt, insecurity, and self-harm are difficult yet important topics to explore with a YA audience. I cringed when Nym described how she creates her memorial tattoos. But it’s incredibly symbolic of her journey toward self-worth, and I cheered for her as she learned to ignore the painful craving. So, kudos to Weber for examining those subjects with care and poise.

Now, the ending. Gah!!! What a cliffhanger! It screamed the word “sequel” and made me quaver with fear over Nym’s safety. It also left me dying to know what’s going to happen to another character – yet feeling violated as a reader because I can’t possibly imagine how said character will survive that plot twist. I’m not lying when I say that I slapped Storm Siren on my lap three times when I finished reading it and shouted, “No, no, no!” The reaction makes me laugh in hindsight, but it reflects how torn I feel about the ending.

But it’s a good kind of torn. Why? Because at its heart, Storm Siren is more than a story about power and magic. It’s a visceral and inspired tale of a young woman’s effort to save her home and the people she cares about while saving herself from her own worst enemy. And thanks to its colorful cast of characters and distinctive world-building, Storm Siren has a vibrant, quirky personality that helps it stand out in the fantasy genre. It’s not a perfect story, but it has me invested. You’ll find me in line when Book 2 comes out in June 2015.

*       *      *

Deciding whether to buy Storm Siren from Amazon? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”

Chronicling The Craft: 75,000 & 80,000 Words

A Peek Into the Novel’s Villains and Antagonists

Chapters Completed: 20

Chapters In Progress: 4

Chapters Not Started: 10

“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with writing my current work-in-progress (WIP), which is a fantasy novel. Every 5,000 words, I let readers know what I’ve accomplished since the previous article and share advice, discoveries, techniques, etc. Besides the word count in each article title, a “chapter ticker” at the top also tracks my progress as I use the skip-around / “writercopter” method to write the novel. Today’s installment celebrates the book reaching 75,000 and 80,000 words in length.

Yup, it’s a double installment of Chronicling The Craft! Although it doesn’t exactly mean double the fun, topics, length, etc. I went on another planned writing vacation during the first week of September. Going into that vacation, I was closing in on 75,000 words, but I didn’t want to halt the novel’s progress partway through the week to squeeze in a blog article. So, I decided to barrel past the 75K mark and see how far I could take the novel from there. Today, it stands at a hair over 80,200 words. *does a happy dance*

Here’s what I’ve worked on since the previous Chronicle: Continue reading

Chronicling The Craft: 25,000 Words

The First Reveal – The Protagonist’s Race

Chapters In Progress: 8

Chapters Completed: 5

Part of me wishes I could have achieved the “5,000 Words In One Week” feat again this time around. That was a special case because of my writing vacation, however. Now, with a full-time job and other commitments taking priority over novel-writing on most days, a 5-week turnaround is pretty darn good. Today’s Chronicle is a special one, too – because, as I’ve promised, I’ll reveal one major aspect of the novel: the protagonist’s race! Continue reading