I am always on the lookout for new and interesting takes on urban fantasy. I enjoy urban fantasy set in our world, where the supernatural are either covert or living openly, but there is something so good about made-up cities and their cultures. Radiant, Karina Sumner-Smith’s first book in a trilogy about the Towers, is a prime example of this. She creates a world where magic is as commonplace as technology is for us—but the protagonist, Xhea, can’t access it. This premise alone isn’t all that original, but when you toss in Xhea’s ability to see and interact with ghosts, you get closer to an amazing story.
Radiant opens with Xhea temporarily severing the tether that attaches a ghost to a person she’s haunting. But this is no ordinary ghost. Shai is the eponymous Radiant, and without going into spoilers, let’s just say that makes her very valuable to the upper class citizens of the floating Towers. Down in the muck of the Lower City, Xhea couldn’t care less, and she resolves to help keep Shai away from them and free Shai, if possible. There is much more at stake, of course. So Xhea finds herself a fugitive from multiple Towers, ghostly Shai in tow, as her own strange magic, so different from everyone else’s, finally starts to assert itself.
I loved Xhea’s characterization from the start, though I didn’t necessarily love Xhea herself, if that makes sense. Sumner-Smith portrays Xhea as a very exhausted teenager: she has literally been fighting for her survival every day of her life, ever since she ran away from the skyscraper that would have indentured her, discovered her darkness, and used it to their advantage. Her attitude is very consistent with this. A lot of her behaviour is reactive rather than proactive—she doesn’t really care about the larger political implications of what she’s doing, or what will happen in the short- or long-terms if she is successful. She’s just acting, because to stand still is to die.
Similarly, Sumner-Smith lays out the workings of this world with clarity and a minimum of exposition. The Lower City comes alive as Xhea and Shai duck, dodge, and dive through it. It’s a bustling marketplace of people just trying to get by, while far above them, these glimmering edifices hang in the sky like judgmental, inaccessible palaces. Citizens occasionally deign to descend from the Towers, in magical elevators, to purchase items from the Lower City’s markets, or make their own sales. But by and large, the Towers have their own politics, their own culture, their own problems—all of which I hope to learn more about in future books. Sumner-Smith presents a great example of a divided, polarized society that is almost allegorical for what’s happening in our own time without making the allegory too on-the-nose like some young-adult dystopian novels.
Radiant loses some of its lustre simply because I think we spend too much time with Xhea and a few other characters. Although she interacts with a small number of allies, and confronts a small number of antagonists, we never really get to know many other characters. Shai is about the only other one who receives any development. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a book, but I tend to prefer books with ensemble casts or, if we have a single, strong central protagonist, then a wider set of characters with whom they interact. Despite the awesome scope hinted at in this book, Xhea’s world is such a narrow slice of it that the novel feels constrained as a result.
The plot itself is also fairly simple. I enjoyed reading this book, and the last fifty pages really pick up and turn into a satisfying, action-packed climax. Yet for the middle third of the book, I vacillated between mild interest and mild boredom, much as Xhea’s status vacillates between mild safety and mild danger. If there had been even just a little bit more, just one more layer to the mystery, something else for Xhea to investigate or do, then perhaps that would have been enough to keep me interested.
I don’t mean to damn with faint praise: Radiant is breathtaking for its originality and its writing. It’s a strong book—and that’s precisely why I’m trying to articulate why I didn’t love it. These are the books that are interesting, the ones you know are good yet don’t quite become favourites.