Summary: 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.
Thoughts: Radiant is a novel with a very interesting premise. What if everyone has some degree of magic, but you don’t? What if that lack of magic leaches colour from your sight, so that you see only in shades of black and white. Xhea is such a person, living in the shattered remnants of a city on the ground while floating towers of privilege and magic go by overhead. She barely ekes out a living, doing odd jobs for food and the money that essentially comes in the form of magic, magic that she can’t use herself but that gives her a high and allows her to see colour until the power wears off. She also has the power to see and communicate with ghosts, a somewhat singular talent that is part and parcel of the work she tends to do.
But when chance ties her to a ghost named Shai, a ghost whose magical strength is beyond anything Xhea has ever witnessed, a ghost whose body might still be alive in one of the floating Towers, Xhea gets drawn into a dangerous plot of abuse and discovery, sacrifice and duty and the past coming back to bite everyone.
Describing this novel makes it sound like it’s nothing special, like it’s composed of bits of pieces of classic tropes in new clothes. And I won’t say that it’s trope free, nor that tropes make it bad by default. Radiant shows a spectacular amount of originality in its execution. Xhea’s reaction to magic being like drug addiction, for instance, isn’t entirely original but it’s done here so well that it’s very realistic rather than sensational. Nor is the idea of magic being the energy of life and there’s one person who has none of it, but making the manifestation of that being that the afflicted can’t see colour isn’t often done. Sumner-Smith takes old ideas and polishes them, makes them shiny and new, and it’s to great effect.
Radiant brings up some thought-provoking and disturbing ideas about obligation and sacrifice, and asks on multiple occasions how far is too far. Is slavery any less slavery if you call it being indentured? If a person is born with a certain strength, how obligated are they to use it? Is it right to agree to sacrifice your own life for the good of others, and is anybody wrong for trying to convince you otherwise? Difficult questions get asked here, the kind of questions that hit hard and make you have to stop reading to properly consider them before moving on. Shai’s magical strength can power her Tower, making a good and safe home for hundreds of people, and she has agreed to this, even though doing so means that she will die of rampant cancer and have her spirit continue to be drained beyond her body’s death. Xhea has run from servitude and still has a massive debt of service owed to another Tower, one that she refuses to pay because she views freedom and poverty to be preferable to indentureship and sufficiency. Radiant isn’t just a well-paced and interesting story, but it’s very intelligent and worth taking the time to properly appreciate.
One drawback I found while reading it was that it feels very much like I’m coming into the middle of a story rather than the beginning. While I don’t expect to have my hand held over everything and to have pages taken up by awkward exposition and backstory, there were more than a few moments where past events were mentioned and treated as though the reader should already be familiar with them. In particular, every event that had to do with Lorn. He owes Xhea a favour. He’s in a position of authority. They have a history. But only vague hints are really dropped about who he is and what went on to create this whole setup in the first place, and it left me feeling like I must have missed something somewhere along the way. It was revealed, for the most part, but largely between the lines. Knowing wasn’t essential to the story in Radiant, but it felt like a poorly set-up mystery, something to string the reader along without much to actually interest the reader in finding out the truth.
Still, besides a lack of detail to the backstory, Radiant was still a wonderful read, and the post-apocalyptic future that Sumner-Smith set up really has me hooked. It’s to her credit that the night walkers did not actually scare me in the way that zombies typically do, though they share much in common. Don’t get me wrong, they were freaking creepy, and you could really feel the tension in the scenes where night walkers were present, but I didn’t experience the gut-wrenching insomnia-inducing fear that accompanies zombies (thanks a lot, phobia that nobody takes seriously…). The friendship between Xhea and Shai was also deeply inspiring and well worth reading. I wish more authors would set up relationships like this between characters. They may have been thrown together more due to random circumstance than a particular choice or mutual interest, but their friendship grew strong and dedicated, and I adored seeing that. So often it seems that strong connections can only be portrayed in fiction by romance or bloodline, and anything else is either overlooked or played as unhealthy. Or just romance waiting to happen. For my part, I loved seeing a friendship that was friendship, strong and connecting and devoted and influential. Sumner-Smith can probably turn the world into some kind of alien-operated dystopia involving hyper-intelligent pink bunnies in the future and I will still come back for the friendship.
Long story short, you need to read Radiant. It’s got the right blend between fantasy and sci-fi to appeal to fans of either genre, very realistic characters that you want to read more about, and enough mysteries and curiosity to leave me, at least, salivating over the sequel. Sumner-Smith is an author I’ll be keeping my eye on in the future, to see what else she’ll do that will keep me as entertained and thoughtful.
(Received for review from the publisher.)