Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith is the second book in the Towers Trilogy—which will be completed in November with the release of Towers Fall! The series, beginning with the author’s debut novel Radiant, is set in the same world as her Nebula-nominated short story “An End to All Things.” I was particularly impressed with the world, writing, and overall uniqueness of Radiant, and Defiant continues to build on that world while keeping the focus on Xhea and Shai, both as friends and individuals.
More than two months after the end of Radiant, Xhea remains at Edren and has still not healed from the knee injury resulting from saving Shai. The great amount of magic generated by her ghost friend’s presence more than pays for Xhea’s room and board, but Xhea remains unaware of just how much impact bringing a Radiant to Edren has had—until the day she and Shai are summoned by Lorn Edren’s wife, Emara, shortly after Xhea followed a strange ghost underground and witnessed the crumbling of Edren’s barricade.
While the people of Edren have attempted to hide Shai and Xhea’s presence as much as possible, the other towers have noticed—it would be difficult for them not to, as there has never been magic as strong as hers in the Lower City. Edren fears that the attack on their barricade may be the beginning of a war, and they would have never known about it if not for Xhea. With her rare ability to tolerate going underground, they may be able to learn more about what happened, including whether or not any of the other skyscrapers’ barricades have similar problems. Xhea agrees to investigate but what she discovers is that it’s not just Shai’s power others seek to use—they also covet her own dark magic that she herself does not understand.
While I didn’t love Radiant, I thought it was a strong debut novel—original and thoughtfully composed with some lovely, picturesque prose—and these impressive qualities ensured that I would be reading more by Karina Sumner-Smith! Conveniently, there was not a long wait between the first and second books in this trilogy, and I did not have to wait long to read Defiant, which I found shared many strengths and weaknesses with the first book. Like Radiant, it had an opening chapter that made me eager to find out what happened next and a phenomenal ending, but also like the previous book, it had some pacing problems and an overabundance of narrative. I enjoyed that the relationship given the most focus remained Xhea and Shai’s friendship, but they spent a lot of time apart which led to a lot of internal thoughts and description, especially considering most people other than Xhea cannot see or hear Shai. As with the first book, there is some lovely writing, although it didn’t strike me as having quite as much beauty as Radiant. In the end, my experience with Defiant was very much like that with the first book—except that I thought this book was more readable than the first without being quite as memorable.
It’s been difficult to pinpoint why I had that reaction to it since I did find it to be more of a page-turner than the first book, especially the chapters from Xhea’s perspective in which she learned more about her mysterious power. This book both answered questions and set up more questions to be explored in the next book, and while I’m definitely interested in learning more in the conclusion, the ending didn’t pique my curiosity quite as much as the end of Radiant. I think that’s primarily because I’m most interested in reading about characters, and most of what I’m left wondering about after reading Defiant is related to the world and magic rather than characters’ pasts or motivations. Although I enjoy reading about both Xhea and Shai, neither has a personality that makes spending time inside her head particularly compelling so I did not become more invested in either after reading more about them. While Xhea’s perspective occasionally strikes me as a little humorous, both of them are mostly serious. This makes perfect sense given all that they’ve been through and continue to go through, but I tend to prefer that narrators have more of a sense of humor or other distinct traits that come through in books as narrative-heavy as this one.
The world-building continues to be the highlight of this series. In Radiant, I usually felt like I was one step behind Xhea and her knowledge, and I rather liked that since what she conveyed and held back fit with her situation and thoughts. However, I think a lot of what made this book more readable than the first was that I was closer to equal footing with Xhea because a lot of the important parts in this book were also new to her as she learned more about her magic and her past. Like the previous book, there is a focus on the cost of power. In my review of Radiant, I discussed how Xhea’s story showed the cost of too little power in a world in which magic was necessary for life itself and Shai’s the cost of too much. In Defiant, both girls’ stories are more parallel as both are sought for completely different types of magic—and both are treated as sources of useful magic rather than people.
Overall, I enjoyed Defiant about as much as the first book in the Towers Trilogy. Both books have strong world-building, openings, and endings but also falter a bit with pacing and too much narrative. While I felt that Radiant seemed a little more carefully crafted and written, I loved that Defiant delved further into the fantastic world that Karina Sumner-Smith has created—and introduced some intriguing developments that set the stage for Towers Fall.
My Rating: 7.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.
Other Reviews of Defiant:
Reviews of Other Book(s) in the Towers Trilogy: