Radiant (2014, Talos/Skyhorse) is a ghost story set in a post-apocalyptic and mildly dystopian world that is really about friendship and economics. In case the word “economics” makes you want to run, I’ll tell you this: the economics bits were my favorite part. Nerds of a Feather alerted me to the existence of Karina Sumner-Smith‘s debut novel (the first in a trilogy, duh) with their many enthusiastic praises. Thanks, Nerds.
In the world of Radiant, everybody is born with magic, some with more, some with less, and magic is used as currency (called renai). You use it to pay for food and shelter, and without it magic tech doesn’t even recognize you as human. The less you have, the more invisible you are, until you just blink out, a un-important, invisible footnote to Big People living in Big Towers run by Big Magic. Except people are sometimes born without magic. Enter magic=cash metaphor and the easy-to-understand picture of privilege it allows Sumner-Smith to insert into the story.
Radiant’s narrator Xhea was born without (traditional) magic. She lives in dire poverty below the ground, where she is safer because, for reasons unexplained, it hurts people with magic to go underground since the catastrophic event that caused the world of tech to end and the world of magic to begin. Those with magic live in big fancy towers, run on their excess power, and those with less (or none) live in the Lower City, scraping by on what they can. After a visit to one of the Towers, Xhea flips her shit on a crowd after seeing a woman cry over a pair of shoes and providing the perfect example of the book’s discussion of economics and privilege:
‘You don’t understand what you have, do you?’ Xhea said, and heard her voice twist, true pain coloring the words. ‘Not any of you. You’ve stopped seeing all the things you’ve been given. Gifts heaped upon you for being born normal. Clothes, family, food. A place to sleep. People to love. You’ve stopped being grateful—if you ever were.’
‘Calm down,’ a voice said from nearby. ‘I understand you’re upset, but–’
Someone from the back of the crowd interrupted: ‘What do you want? The shirt off my back?’
‘Yes!’ Xhea cried. ‘Your shirt, your home, your life.’
‘Earn it,’ the unseen speaker called back. …
‘Earn? … Earn? You were born a citizen! Born with magic—renai— in your blood. What’s there left for you to earn? You just can’t stand the thought that you’ve had it easy—that all your little struggles are a lot lot of nothing.’
The two main characters—Xhea, without traditional magic and only able to earn her way because she can see and manipulate ghosts and Shai, a ghost from the upper class with so much magic it is killing her—are perfect foils. One with no magic, one with more than is healthy. One living in dire poverty, one who has lived in the lushest lap of luxury, who did not even know such poverty was possible until their paths cross. The friendship that develops between Shai and Xhea drives the book and adds a beautiful and complex depth to the mystery they find themselves in need of solving.
Without this layer of social commentary, Radiant might have registered as just another book set in another unexplained apocalypse that conveniently has brought magic into the world and inconveniently for some, created some dystopian social structures. The story was well-paced, suspenseful and vivid, but the social commentary kept it from becoming ordinary.
Four out of five freshly baked waffles. With syrup.
Read the first two paragraphs of Radiant here.
Where I got it: Send by the publisher for review