Defiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 12, 2015

Summary: Once, Xhea’s wants were simple: enough to eat, safety in the underground, and the hit of bright payment to transform her gray-cast world into color. But in the aftermath of her rescue of the Radiant ghost Shai, she realizes the life she had known is gone forever.

In the two months since her fall from the City, Xhea has hidden in skyscraper Edren, sheltered and attempting to heal. But soon even she must face the troubling truth that she might never walk again. Shai, ever faithful, has stayed by her side—but the ghost’s very presence has sent untold fortunes into Edren’s coffers and dangerously unbalanced the Lower City’s political balance.

War is brewing. Beyond Edren’s walls, the other skyscrapers have heard tell of the Radiant ghost and the power she holds; rumors, too, speak of the girl who sees ghosts who might be the key to controlling that power. Soon, assassins stalk the skyscrapers’ darkened corridors while armies gather in the streets. But Shai’s magic is not the only prize—nor the only power that could change everything. At last, Xhea begins to learn of her strange dark magic, and why even whispers of its presence are enough to make the Lower City elite tremble in fear.

Together, Xhea and Shai may have the power to stop a war—or become a weapon great enough to bring the City to its knees. That is, if the magic doesn’t destroy them first.

Thoughts: Picking up shortly after where Radiant ended, Xhea is still in Edren Tower, injured with little hope of proper healing. Bright magic, the kind that nearly everyone has and thus the kind that is used for healing spells, hurt her, and her body seems bent on destroying even the most carefully set spells upon her. The council of the tower seems to want nothing to do with her and everything to do with Shai, the Radiant ghost who is still attached to Xhea and whose excess power is currently being used by Edren because nobody else is using it, and magic is needed to fuel almost every aspect of life in a Tower. But then inter-Tower politics get complicated and violent, Shai and Xhea are separated, and Xhea comes face to face with her own mysterious past and just what her dark power really means.

There’s a lot to like in Defiant. First, I do want to take a moment to talk about how Xhea’s disability was handled. And I think it was done rather well. From personal experience, at least, I think that her reactions to the whole thing were pretty understandable, and well-expressed. I can’t say I’ve experienced permanent physical disabilities like Xhea’s, but I’ve dealt with tenporary-but-long-term ones, and the experience was remarkably similar. The initial denial, the drive to not do much of anything coupled with the insistence that no help is needed. The willingness to do something that will hurt like hell and may not be permanent if it just brings even a bit of relief. The frustration over experiencing how your body doesn’t want to cooperate when there are things that you need to get done and it doesn’t feel like playing nice. It’s ever-present, but it doesn’t stop her from doing what she can do when it’s within her limits, and it doesn’t stop her from pushing those limits when she deems the situation worth it (such as being life-threatening if she doesn’t ignore the screaming tearing pain in her knee and walk faster). I think it was presented very well, as a part of the character that she had to learn to work around and work with, but never something that defined her or so drastically changed her that she became her disability.

Secondly, I really like the way Xhea’s dark magic was expanded upon and really used to good effect here. No longer is it presented as an entirely unique ability. Just a really rare one. We get more information about what it does, how it works, what can be done with it that wasn’t expected. We get to see both the negative side of it and the positive, and I really liked the way that played into how the novel ended. I don’t want to go into too many details, but suffice it to say that I was surprised. It may have been a little deus ex machina, but it all still fit very well into the world that Sumner-Smith created.

Xhea and Shai, as before, make a wonderful team, even when they’re apart and working independently of each other. I love their friendship. I love how they have such a close strong bond, and I love that (at least as of this book) it hasn’t turned into romance. I see so much in media reinforcing the idea that someone close to you can only either be family or a romantic partner, and it’s rare to see people so close and still fit firmly into the friendship category. Rare, and so very refreshing and welcome when it does happen. Honestly, these two are probably the best example of friendship I’ve seen in SFF in a long time. They were thrown together by circumstance, but since that event they’ve grown closer and rely on each other. They’re like the poster children for committed friendship! It’s great!

One of the biggest problems I had with the first book in the trilogy, the feeling that I’m really coming in the middle of the story and the feeling that I should already know what a lot of hints are referring to, happily doesn’t occur here. Much of the specifics I felt that about last time, too, get fully addressed, and instead of feeling like plot points were being dangled out of reach, I felt like I finally had all the pieces and they were all in the right place. There was still plenty to reveal and to hold back until the time was right, making a good sense of mystery throughout the novel, but it didn’t leave me feeling like I was floundering in some places, like I had last time. The additional upside to this is that now I also want to go back and read the first book over again, with all this newfound knowledge, to see if some scenes make better sense now than they did before.

When people say that this is a series with strong female protagonists, they aren’t kidding. They aren’t strong in the sense that they carry big guns and can kick the butt of any problem they encounter. They’re strong in the way that they’re very much themselves, reliant on nobody else to define them, and so powerfully real that you can’t help but be even a little bit motivated to emulate them.They stand out by not standing out, by being themselves instead of being the opposite of a stereotype (which, in itself, has pretty much become a stereotype), and it’s wonderful to see. If strength is defined by being your own person, then Xhea and Shai are fantastically strong.

This is a series that should be getting more attention and hype than it is. It may not be a ground-breaking game-changer for speculative fiction, but it’s got so much to it; a rich story, a future that isn’t obsessed with being defined only by its past, characters who are complex and real, and politics and magic in spades! It’s one of the best post-apocalyptic urban fantasies I’ve ever found, and in that meld of genres it’s got a fairly wide appeal. I can’t wait to read the trilogy’s conclusion, and to see what Sumner-Smith will do next.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Radiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 30, 2014

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.)