Radiant, Karina Sumner-Smith’s debut novel, is set in the same world as her Nebula-nominated short story “An End To All Things.” It’s also the first book in the Towers Trilogy, which will be completed in 2015. Defiant is scheduled for release in May and Towers Fall will follow later in the year.

Xhea has never been like everyone else—she has no magic, the power tied to life itself. Survival is tough for those without much magic and even harder for Xhea since many ordinary tasks require it. However, Xhea scrapes by the best she can by collecting and selling artifacts and performing services related to her unique ability to see and hear ghosts. She can also cut the tethers that keep ghosts bound to people after they die, freeing the living from the constant sensation of a ghost’s presence.

When a man approaches her with money and the ghost of his daughter drifting in his wake, Xhea agrees to unbind the spirit from him and bind the dead girl to herself for two days. This is not particularly unusual business for Xhea, but the more time she spends with the ghost, Shai, the more extraordinary the situation seems. A ghost should no longer have any magic at all, but Shai sometimes glows brightly with it. The only other time Xhea encountered a ghost radiant with magic like Shai, someone was trying to resurrect him and the ghost’s end was agonizing. The memory of this continues to haunt Xhea, and she vowed to never allow this to happen to another ghost if she could help it. She cannot abandon Shai, this girl with the painful past who would be completely alone without Xhea, to a similar fate. Yet as Xhea’s determination to do what she can for her new friend grows, so does her newly discovered magic—a dark, uncontainable power that she must learn to control if she’s going to help Shai.

Radiant is a strong debut novel, and I was particularly impressed by the worldbuilding, writing, and its overall uniqueness. It did have some problems with pacing that may have been partially due to setting up the rest of the trilogy since there was a lot to introduce: the basic world and its social structure, Xhea and Shai’s developing friendship, and both girls’ different powers. Throughout the book, a tantalizing mystery builds surrounding Xhea’s burgeoning abilities, especially as it becomes clear that others have some knowledge about them even if she and Shai do not. Since I did find parts of the first half slow, Radiant wasn’t my favorite debut of 2014, but it has the distinction of being the one I admired the most for its originality and thoughtful composition—and for these reasons, Karina Sumner-Smith is absolutely an author whose books I will be looking out for in the future.

A large part of what makes Radiant different is its world. The Towers Trilogy is set sometime after a great change occurred, making humanity reliant on magic. Everyone is supposed to possess at least a little magic, and the leftover power can fuel machinery or be used as currency. Those with an abundance of magic are well-off and live in the towers, and those with little to spare can barely survive on the ground. As the only person she knows without any magic, Xhea can barely make it by and is well aware that most people consider her some sort of freak. I loved the contrast between Xhea and Shai’s lives and what was shown about the world through their differing experiences: Xhea’s story shows the cost of having too little power while Shai’s shows the cost of having too much.

The world is complex and isn’t always explained thoroughly, but I loved that the author didn’t try to over-explain the details or fill in too much of the past before Xhea’s time. The narrative is told through her third-person perspective, and I felt like I saw the world just as she saw it. Once in awhile, there was a reference to the “before-times” but there weren’t big infodumps filling in the gaps of what happened—the information revealed seemed to be what was important to Xhea’s thoughts and situation at the time. Of course, I am curious to learn more about what happened and hope it’s revealed in one of the other two volumes in the trilogy, but I thought the way information was parceled through her perspective was quite fitting.

Another aspect of Radiant that sets it apart from a lot of fantasy I’ve read is that the relationship in the series given the most focus is the friendship between Xhea and Shai, two women. Xhea has no significant other, friends, or family, only business contacts and acquaintances—until Shai enters her life. At first, Xhea views Shai as a spoiled rich girl, and she wishes for her to stop talking so she can just drag her around with some peace and quiet for a couple of days, earn her pay, and then return the ghost girl to her father. Yet as Xhea gets to know Shai, she comes to see she’s had a deeply difficult life despite her wealthy family and she sympathizes with her as someone who is now alone, just as Xhea has been for so long. The two face many challenges together, and the lengths Xhea goes to in order to help Shai are quite touching. Initially, it seems as though she mostly wants to help her out of moral principles and the thought of Shai facing her fate without anyone at all, but later it’s much more than that—Shai is Xhea’s friend and she will fight for her.

The dialogue is straightforward and natural, but the prose is often quite picturesque and lovely. For example, the first two paragraphs painted a vivid image:


Curled in a concrete alcove that had once been a doorway, Xhea watched the City man make his awkward way through the market tents, dragging a ghost behind him. Magic sparkled above his head like an upturned tulip, deflecting the heavy rain and letting it pour to the ground to trace a circle in the puddles at his feet. He was, of course, watching her.

It was not his attention that had caught Xhea’s notice, nor his poor attempt to blend into the crowd, but the ghost tethered to him with a line of energy more felt than seen. The dead girl couldn’t have been much older than Xhea herself—sixteen, Xhea supposed, perhaps seventeen—and she floated an arm’s span above the man’s head like a girl-shaped helium balloon.

As impressed as I was by Radiant, I did think that it was bogged down by too much narrative at times, especially in the first half. While Xhea’s thoughts and observations fit naturally, they were often in large chunks that could have used some dialogue to break things up more. This works in the sense that Xhea is alone a lot of the time or with just Shai—who isn’t always talkative despite Xhea’s early impression of her as a talker—but it did slow down the pacing a lot. Toward the end, this was better as more happened and Xhea spent more time with other characters (some of whom were quite compelling and will be interesting to learn more about).

Radiant is one of the more unconventional speculative fiction books I’ve read recently. Some of the elements are familiar—technology being replaced by magic, a main protagonist who learns she’s extraordinary, and yes, even the walking (un)dead—but Karina Sumner-Smith created a world that is entirely unlike any I’ve encountered before. I feel like I keep using this word, but “unique” really sums up Radiant in every way: the prose, the focus on two remarkable heroines, and the setting with its ghosts, magic, and towers. It may not have been as much of a page-turner as I would have liked during the first half of the book, but it certainly left me eager to read Defiant—or any other book the author writes.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

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