Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith. ★★★
Radiant is possibly the only YA fantasy book I’ve ever read where the primary relationship is a friendship between two girls. Unfortunately, Radiant never quite connected with me.
Xhea is teenage girl who is, impossibly, without magic. Yet, she does have an unique ability: Xhea can see ghosts. She makes a living in the Lower City, shadowed by the floating towers above, by scavenging from the ruins and trading off of her ability to see ghosts. One day a man pays her to take away the ghost of a girl. This girl turns out to be Shai, a Radiant, someone who’s magic is so powerful that her tower uses her as a generator. And the towers won’t stop seeking Shai, not even after she dies.
There’s some interesting twists of world building to Radiant. While the story’s a fantasy, it’s also a post-apocalyptic, dystopian sort of book. The ruins Xhea scavenges in are clearly that of one of our modern cities (for some reason I kept thinking London). There’s no mention of what might have caused the end of our civilization or brought about magic, and likewise no mention of what lies beyond the ruins. Finally, there’s these creatures – “walkers” – that come out only at night and are avoided by those in the lower city at all costs. Are you thinking zombies? Because as soon as I heard of them, I was too.
While there were a lot of interesting elements to Radiant‘s world, they never combined to form a cohesive whole. I can’t shake the feeling that I wish there was more to it. Perhaps this is because most of what we see in Radiant, despite the magic, is familiar from hosts of other post-apocalyptic novels. It’s possible that the next two books in the trilogy will expand upon the world and provide more information regarding things like the walkers (I’m betting they tie into the magic system somehow). On the other hand, Radiant never gave me enough that I feel compelled to read the sequels.
I liked Xhea and Shai’s friendship, but I don’t know how much I care about them as individuals. Xhea is a common character type in YA post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels – the scrappy survivor with an innate specialness – and she never distinguished herself much beyond that. It was easy to feel sorry for Shai given what being a Radiant entails, but I’m not sure how much I know about her outside her friendship with Xhea and her status as Radiant. I will also note that Radiant is one of the exceedingly female led YA fantasy novels without a romance subplot. The only others I can think of off the top of my head are Updraft and Archivist Wasp.
Unfortunately, the plot structure didn’t do Radiant any services. It felt almost serial, like it was constantly starting and stopping as new developments to carry it along had to be introduced.
Although there were elements of Radiant that I found lacking, I don’t think it’s a horrible book. Merely an okay one. It’s also possible that it’d been over hyped for me and that I was expecting more than I got. I won’t be actively recommending it, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone else from giving it a go.