Radiant is the first book in the Towers Trilogy, a series by debut author Karina Sumner-Smith. In it, our main character, Xhea, is a girl without magic – a very unusual thing in her world. For the citizens of the City, the rich are rich by virtue of having magic, so Xhea is left fending for herself in the Lower City like a bottom-feeder. Getting breakfast means scavenging for whatever crumbs she can scrounge up; sleeping well means wrapping herself in damp blankets and jackets to keep warm underground. The only way that Xhea manages to earn money is through her own brand of individualized enterprise: she takes on the burden of other people by carrying their ghosts around for a few days so the victim can get away from their haunting for a few days, and she does this for a price.
I know, it sounds weird. But it’s so cool.
In the world of the City, carrying someone’s ghost is a literal thing. Xhea has no magic of her own, but she can see ghosts when others cannot. Ghosts are joined to surviving friends or family members via a tether (think of a balloon on a string and the end of the string is attached to your chest), but Xhea is able to transfer the ghosts to her own body so the living can go on with their lives for a few days without feeling the presence of a spirit hovering over them.
Enter Shai, the ghost of a girl who lived and subsequently died in the Towers, the wealthiest area of the City that floats in the air high above Xhea’s world of the Lower City. Shai, like most people in this world, has magic, but it’s a magic brighter and more powerful than anything Xhea has ever seen, and it’s attracting the attention of one too many players on the chessboard. Magic is a commodity in the City, and some people will do anything to get their hands on such a powerful hoard as what Shai has inside her.
Uniqueness of the plot aside, Radiant has something that I’ve been craving for ages in fantasy novels: friendships between girls – or more specifically, strong and budding friendships between girls. Xhea and Shai don’t necessarily get along at first – Xhea sees Shai as a job that needs to be taken care of and Shai for the most part is confused about the fact that she died and that she’s tethered to Xhea in the first place – but over time their relationship evolves and develops into one of mutual trust and respect.
It’s so hard to find that in fantasy fiction nowadays, where most of the time the women are embroiled in some sort of romance. That’s not to say that romance can’t be awesome and interesting when it’s done properly, but Xhea and Shai’s budding friendship is such a breath of fresh air that I hope there’s more fantasy novels to come where the main focus is the women, and where the main character development stems from the women growing to know and like each other.
Unfortunately, Radiant does suffer from awkward pacing. The beginning of the novel throws readers right into the thick of things and keeps them hooked with all the worldbuilding and intrigue, but as the novel continues on, everything starts moving much slower. The action decreases and the story drags on and on until it gets – dare I say it – boring in certain spots. This makes it difficult to retain certain worldbuilding info when it’s dropped in the middle of an unbroken or boring paragraph, and so you find yourself rereading certain areas of the book when you get to them, which can be tedious at best, annoying at worst.
Xhea and Shai as characters were great. Xhea has a dark past that, once you learn about it, throws her whole situation into a more intriguing perspective, and of course you can’t help but sympathize with Shai and her condition (that of being dead). I hesitate to use the phrase ‘strong female characters’ here because it’s too condescending: they are fully-fleshed, fully-formed, well-written female characters. They have their flaws, their personality traits and quirks, their desires, their histories, and in the end all these things make them great women to read about and root for.
Radiant is a story that begins with a death, but in that death two young women connect with one another and form a strong bond that helps set the foundation for their futures, uncertain and changing though they may be. Thank goodness this is the first book in a trilogy, because you’ll definitely be wanting more when you’re done.
4 out of 5 stars
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a senior at New York University studying creative writing. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.
You may also want to check out her recent reviews of Soulless and Snowblind. If you’re looking for some comics recommendations, she also has the lowdown on some of the best Captain America comics to check out.