I was fortunate enough to receive an advance review copy of Karina Sumner Smith‘s debut fantasy novel Radiant [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which comes out on September 23. It’s a dystopian future fantasy, billed as book one of the Towers trilogy.
From the publisher’s description:
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.
The central premise made me think of Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” You have the same horrifying choice: the Towers can create a utopian existence, but only by horrifically enslaving and using their Radiants. We meet the Radiant, Shai, and see first her fear and pain, but as the story progresses, we watch her realize that if she does choose to stay away, she’ll be dooming her home Tower. It’s a great setup for the book.
Xhea doesn’t know a lot of this at first. She just knows she’s been hired to deal with a tethered ghost (Shai). It’s how she earns a little extra money and a hit of magic, which acts very much like a drug for Xhea. The summary talks about how Xhea’s experiences awaken a new, dangerous magic within her, but I think what’s even more powerful is the friendship and loyalty Shai awakens. Xhea has grown up in the dystopian ruins on the ground beneath the floating towers. Shai has grown up a tool of her society, little more than a glorified super-battery. Neither of them have much experience trusting others, nor reasons to do so. Which makes the relationship that develops between them that much more powerful. It feels like a well-written love story without the romance, if that makes sense. That relationship is great, and was for me the most touching and engrossing part of the book.
The secondary characters were well done too, often hard-edged and worn down by their broken society, but you still see glimpses of humanity and kindness and more.
There were some times when it felt a little bumpy — description that didn’t quite come together to create a clear picture in my mind, or scenes were the pacing felt a little off. All of which is pretty standard for a first novel, and none of it bumped me out of the story or diminished my enjoyment.
While this is book one of a trilogy, Radiant is relatively self-contained, coming to a satisfying ending while leaving some of the bigger, societal conflicts for the next books. I just hope Xhea has an easier time of it in the next one, because that girl ends up on the receiving end of more than her share of breaks and bruises.
You can check out the first chapter on Sumner-Smith’s website.