Radiant – Karina Sumner-Smith

20344702I’ve often expressed my dislike of YA-themed stories,mostly due to the sameness and predictability of the stories themselves and/or the characters they focus on, yet this book caught my attention because a few reviews I read stressed its very difference from the usual fare. They were quite right.

In this case the story does not rest on the usual, tired trope of the exceptionally gifted but neglected girl who falls for the brooding guy with a secret, nor on the equally abused love triangle. The main characters are two girls who form a strong bond of friendship to survive dramatic circumstances: a refreshing point of view that breathes new life into the sub-genre.

The world depicted in Radiant is a post-apocalyptic but quite fascinating one, since magic is its main driving force and the ability to use magic is the discriminating factor that determines a citizen’s status. It’s not explained whether the rise of magic is a consequence of the world’s present conditions or if it always existed, and in truth it makes little difference concerning the story itself: what matters is the social divide it creates. Those who are able to wield magic dwell in the Towers, floating enclaves high above the ground, where they enjoy a good quality of life literally turning their ability into currency, since coins are magically engraved with the needed value.

On the other hand, those who possess little or no magic are condemned to stay on the ground, in the Lower City. Here rest the decaying remnants of a previous civilization, one that was destroyed by some unspecified disaster: people who live at ground level must deal with scarcity of food, of shelter and even of personal security, eking out what’s essentially a life of scavenging through the previous civilization’s debris.

This is one of the first powerful visual impacts provided by the book: the Towers, floating high in the sky like some kind of unattainable goal, or even a dream; and the Lower City, where life is drudgery by day and danger at night when zombie-like creatures that used to be people roam the streets in search for prey.  There is a sort of middle ground as well: the skyscrapers (or what remains of them), where organized power-holders – halfway between crime lords and petty barons – indenture the grounders in exchange for food and protection. This post-apocalyptic world is not only well-defined, but also believable because of its peculiar blend of advanced civilization and magic: the ruined buildings, the cracked pavements, the dirt and shabbiness of the Lower City take life and consistency under the author’s inspired descriptions, presenting the reader with an almost cinematic quality to the images created by her words.

Xhea, one of the two main characters, possesses no magic and manages a hand-to-mouth existence by relying on the unique talent that enables her to see ghosts: acting as a conduit between the living and the dead she gets paid in magic, both to buy whatever she needs to survive and to get a sort of high, as if from a drug, from the passing effects of the magic she acquires.  The day she is contacted by a wealthy man from the Towers to take temporary charge of the ghost he’s tethered to, Xhea’s life changes dramatically: the ghost is Shai, the man’s dead daughter, and she’s a special person, a Radiant – people whose magical powers are so abundant that they are all but enslaved by their home Towers to manage energy needs, even if that condemns them to a short and pain-filled life.

The relationship that oh-so-slowly blossoms between these two girls, these polar opposites, is the backbone and main strength of the book: where Xhea is a loner, an outcast and therefore distrustful of everything and everyone, Shai still retains the innocence and sweet disposition of her privileged life. Once they find themselves on the run from exploiters who seek to recapture Shai’s ghost to force her into another body, so she can resume her duties as a human power plant, their characters begin a fascinating osmosis that changes them profoundly and forces them to grow beyond their years.

Xhea’s transformation is a fascinating process to behold: she starts as a self-centered, almost selfish creature who has built high walls around herself as a form of defense, and a few flash-backs into her past show how and why she now needs that kind of barrier against the world. But contact with innocent and trusting Shai changes her, little by little, from an indifferent handler to a fiercely protective guardian for her ghostly charge.   At first she treats the ghost girl as just another “job”, as a non-entity, but as she uncovers the terrible truth about Radiants and the way they are enslaved and exploited, Xhea becomes more than determined to save her friend, risking everything in the name of that friendship and the bond they established.  This was one of the most difficult sides of the book for me, having to witness the levels of pain and distress that Xhea endures to reach her goal: Sumner-Smith pulls no punches when it comes to her characters, and I must confess that at times it almost hurt to keep on reading, such was the level of empathy I reached for them. Which means that the author was doing her job quite skillfully….

As a debut novel, Radiant is an extraordinary and engrossing discovery, one that introduces a welcome difference into the sub-genre, breathing new life into some of its most used (and abused) tropes.  I’m looking forward with pleasure to the next books in this series.

My Rating: 7,5/10

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